When this light was given me, I had never
seen Huntsville. I was shown that
Huntsville would be a place of special interest to those who would act their
part to help the colored people. -Ellen G. White
you hear the word “Oakwood” what do you think of? Some may pan back to memories of their college days with nostalgia—days
of close friendships formed that have stood the test of time; studies that
prepared them for the workforce; music and preaching, the likes of which they
have not heard since; days when they first met Jesus; and for many, the place
where they met the person that they were destined to spend the rest of their lives
with. And then others have images of
Alumni Weekend, of the Von Braun Center downtown where thousands come from all
over the globe to reconnect and worship, and walking on their beloved campus
again. Whatever Oakwood is to you, it is
certainly the Mecca, the very heart of black Adventism. How did Oakwood obtain this coveted and
1894 a small contingent of Adventist missionary launched out on the Mississippi
River aboard the steamship Morning Star
with the intent of evangelizing blacks in the South in the dangerous post-Civil
War era. The Southern Missionary
Society, as this group was called, met with surprising success, and soon the
need arose to educate the blacks who received the Adventist message. In the racial climate of the day however,
blacks could not safely attend most white institutions, so they needed their
a place for a school for blacks however, was not an easy task. The site needed to be in a central location
yet away from the cities, and in an area where a school of higher learning for
blacks would not arouse white animosity.
In 1896 a 360-acre plot in Huntsville, Alabama, came to the attention of
the General Conference. An envoy of
three men was sent to survey the land: O.A. Olsen, president of the General
Conference; G.A. Irwin, director of the Southern District; and Harmon Lindsay,
veteran church worker and former General Conference employee.
property did not look promising. The
Alabama landscape was sloping and uneven; the red clay was hard as granite; and
dense brush encircled the property.
Additionally, the site was the former home to a slave plantation in
which the master, one James Beasley, was reported to have been the cruelest man
around, whipping his slaves before the workday began. Moreover, surrounding Madison County was
known for occurrences of mutilation and lynching.
Ellen G. White advised church leaders that God had revealed to her this was to
be the spot for the school where African American Seventh-day Adventists would
be educated and trained until the end of time.
So the General Conference purchased the old Beasley Estate in 1896. The place was called Oakwood because of the
65 oaks that towered over the land.
struggled in its early years. The
school’s first manager, J.J. Mitchell, quit after he saw the site. The wells on the property could not be primed
properly. Hundreds of hours of labor
were needed to clear weeds. And the
buildings on the property were in such decay that they required entire
renovations. But through prayer, hard work
and vision, success was realized. On
November 16, 1896, the Oakwood Industrial School was open for business.
Begins to Establish Itself as the Mecca
the turn of the century the majority of African Americans lived in the Southern
United States. Indeed, the black exodus
to the North began in the 1890s, but only during World War I was there the huge
population shift that is responsible for large numbers of blacks in the Northeast
and Midwest, especially in cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New
York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago. The
lure of employment combined with Southern racism spurred more than 6 million
black people to move North from 1916-1960.
Oakwood got a good head
start establishing itself as the hub of black Adventism before this exodus
occurred. It enjoyed the distinction of
being the Seventh-day Adventist institution specifically catering to blacks at
a time when most others did not even allow blacks to enroll, so the school was
the choice for newly converted blacks who sought training in manual arts,
agricultural engineering, nursing, teaching and the ministry.
black Adventists migrated north, they stayed connected to Oakwood. Adventist education, as opposed to education
at a secular institution, was important to SDAs in the early twentieth century,
perhaps more than it is now. Black
college-aged Adventists desired an education consistent with their faith, so
Oakwood was their obvious choice.
Additionally, during this
period the practice of an individual newly baptized into the Adventism going
directly to college came into its own.
Adventism is a religion of the intellect—a faith of the book, a system
of finely related doctrines—so baptism went hand in hand with obtaining an
education. Because of this it seems only
natural that an educational institution would become the Mecca.
so in 1909 Oakwood graduated its first students, marking its success as an
educational force. A year later, the
Negro Department of the General Conference was formed to deal uniquely with the
growing issues of the black work. This
was an important development in black Adventism as evidenced by the black
membership quadrupling in ten years and Oakwood given attention not afforded
1920s through the 1940s was a time of renaissance for black Adventism and
Oakwood much as the Harlem Renaissance was for black Americans at the
time. During this time Oakwood solidified
itself as the hub of black Adventism due to several developments: obtaining
some of the best minds in black Adventism, perhaps the world, to teach at
Oakwood; a student strike in 1931; producing formative leaders; churning out
stellar preachers; and blossoming into a musical powerhouse.
Between the 1920s and
1940s legendary figures in the black Adventism (and several in American
history) taught at Oakwood. These
individuals guided the school through some of Oakwood’s and America’s toughest
years, especially when the Depression scourged the nation. During this time Adventism’s black brain trust
transformed Oakwood into a rich cultural center. Here are a few legendary black Adventists
from 1920-1945 that had to do with Oakwood’s flourishing.
Knight is one of the most influential individuals in the history of
Oakwood. Born in Gitano, Mississippi, on
March 4, 1874, Knight early developed an iron will and steel resolve that would
characterize her life. In 1901, after
obtaining a nursing education under the tutelage of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg at
Battle Creek College, Knight sailed to Calcutta, India, to do missionary work,
becoming the second black Adventist sent by the Church on foreign
missions. Anna Knight was a fixture at
Oakwood for nearly a half a century, beloved and respected, until her death in
1970. Oakwood Elementary is named after
Eva B. Dykes, born in
Washington, D.C., on August 13, 1893, was another legendary Oakwood
personality. In 1921 Dykes received her
PhD, the first black woman in the United States to do so. In 1944 she left a professorship at Howard
University to serve as the chair of the English Department and the Division of
Humanities at Oakwood, and this sacrifice enabled Oakwood to receive
accreditation and attain full college status.
Dr. Dykes also founded the Aeolians, Oakwood’s world famous chorale, in
1946. After giving over four decades of
her life to Oakwood, Dr. Dykes died on October 29, 1986, at the age of 93. The Eva B. Dykes Library is named in her
In the early 1930s the
famed Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps taught at Oakwood. Bontemps was a Seventh-day Adventist for a
good portion of his life and attended San Fernando Academy and Pacific Union
College (PUC). Once graduated from PUC
Bontemps taught at Harlem Academy for a number of years. He was among the pioneers of the Harlem
Renaissance during this time, influencing the likes of Langston Hughes, and
collaborating with him on several books while at teaching English at
Oakwood. Bontemps went on to publish
some 25 works, and taught for many years at Yale until his death.
In the third decade of
Oakwood’s existence its Theology Department distinguished itself for spiritual
professors and producing highly effective evangelists. C.E. Moseley, O.B. Edwards, and F.L. Peterson
all taught theology at Oakwood in the 1920s and 30s. These men, along with C.T. Richards, later,
shaped decades of black Adventist preachers and theology. In the 1936-1937 school year, another shaper
of Adventist theology, Owen A. Troy, became Oakwood College’s first black
business manager. Troy was the first person of any color in the Seventh-day
Adventist denomination to earn a Doctorate of Theology, which he obtained from
the University of Southern California in 1958.
Perhaps the most important
development in Oakwood’s renaissance was the student riots of 1931. This period was a tumultuous time in black
Adventism and American race relations. In
1930 the influential and charismatic J.K. Humphrey and his Harlem SDA Church were
disfellowshipped after they refused to submit their plan for an organization to
aid blacks to the Greater New York Conference.
Closer to Huntsville, the notorious Scottsboro Trial began the year of
the Oakwood student strike.
On October 8, 1931,
Oakwood students refused to attend classes or work. Among the students’ grievances were: white
leadership (there had been no black president and the administration was mostly
white); inadequate curriculum; a work load that left no time for studies;
segregation (white and black teachers were to have no social interaction);
suspect white teachers (students claimed the teachers were rejects from white
Adventist colleges); unjust salaries (white teachers were paid more than black
teachers); inattention to student concerns; and inadequate employment
opportunities after graduation. Many
Adventists who would later became famous in the denomination and dedicate their
lives to the gospel ministry were leaders in the strike, including Samuel
Rashford, F.L. Bland and W.W. Fordham.
Ultimately the strike was
successful. A new era began at Oakwood in
1932 when J.L. Moran became Oakwood’s first black president and an entirely
black faculty was installed. Moran
occupied this position until 1945, and the close of his tenure marked the
beginning of Regional Conferences. This
was a time when blacks came into their own in the Adventist church, assuming
leadership positions over their own constituencies. With the assumption of the Oakwood presidency
by Moran, Oakwood became a black-run institution, a symbol of black competence
and ability amidst a region where such notions were not widely held. This black ascension to leadership was
critical in ushering in Regional Conferences in 1945.
A word should be said here
concerning Oakwood and black leadership.
Regional Conferences were vital to Oakwood becoming the Mecca of black
Adventism for several reasons. First,
the conferences put the reigns of leadership in blacks’ hands. Most of these leaders had met each other at
and graduated from Oakwood College.
These leaders were bound to Oakwood, and directed their constituents to
the school. Second, Regional Conferences
defined the racial lines in the Adventist Church. Black students did not seek to attend white
Adventist colleges as much because Oakwood was the school of the Regional
Conferences (Southern College admitted its first black students in 1968). Finally, Oakwood was the center of the
Regional work, a place where Regional Conference leaders met and planned: In
1978, the Black Caucus of Seventh-day Adventist Administrators was organized at
Oakwood College and in 2003 the Regional Conference Headquarters moved on
Most black Adventist
leaders graduated from Oakwood. Among
the most prominent are Calvin Rock, Charles Bradford, Rosa Banks, E.E.
Cleveland and Charles Dudley. These and
other leaders have shaped Adventist policy and practices. Oakwood has also produced leaders that have
shaped secular policy, both nationally and internationally. Such leaders are John Street, former mayor of
Philadelphia; T.R.M. Howard, civil rights activist; Barry Black, Chaplain of
the United States Senate; and Frank Hale—although not a graduate of Oakwood, he
served as its president—former vice provost of Ohio State University; Earl
Moore, civil rights activist; and Eardell Jenner Rashford, civil servant. Oakwood has produced more black SDA leaders
than any other institution.
Preaching has always been
an integral part of the Oakwood experience.
At almost every major Oakwood event, preaching is involved. Moreover, a very high percentage of black
Seventh-day Adventist pastors are educated at Oakwood, and they are, it may be
said, the face of black Adventism. Most
black SDA preachers come back to Oakwood several times during a given year
either for the annual Alumni Weekend, Pastoral and Evangelism Council or to
drop off or pick up their children.
Several of Oakwood’s legendary preachers that attended Oakwood during
its renaissance should be briefly highlighted.
In 1942 Oakwood graduated
a young man named E.E. Cleveland. In
Cleveland’s more than 65 years of ministry, he baptized over 16,000 souls and
wrote 14 books. But perhaps his most
enduring legacy was the troves of preachers he inspired and taught during his
Charles Bradford is
another Oakwood graduated pulpit legend.
Known for his verbosity throughout thunderous sermons, Bradford also
attained administrative excellence, serving as President of the North American
Division from 1980-1990. In 1990
Bradford founded the Sabbath in Africa Study Group, formed to discover and
broadcast Africa’s rich Christian history.
C.D. Brooks is the third
of the trio of stellar Oakwood graduates of the 1940s that established Oakwood
as the preaching capital of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Mecca of
black Adventism. In over 55 years of
ministry and 12,000 baptisms, C.D. Brooks holds the unofficial distinction of
having more of his sermons circulating in audio format than any other SDA
preacher. Brooks is perhaps best known
for his 30 year tenure at Breath of Life, where he reached hundreds of
thousands through his ministry.
In 2006 Oakwood opened
the doors to the Bradford-Cleveland-Brooks Leadership Center in honor of these
three legends. These men’s matriculation
through Oakwood, their high regard for the college, and their consistent
speaking engagements at the school for over a half a century, are one of the
more important factors in Oakwood’s Mecca status. Other important Oakwood-graduated preachers include
Walter Pearson of Breath of Life; Henry Wright; and Barry Black, the first
African American and military chaplain of the United States Senate.
consistently refer to their time at Oakwood with nostalgia and pride. They also acknowledge it as a place where
they were molded as individuals and as gospel ministers. Oakwood is where they grew into men of God,
and where they developed their theological groundings. These preachers are indeed the molders of
black Adventist theology, thus it may be said that Oakwood is the primary site
in the formation of black Adventist theology.
Oakwood University is known for its
spiritual impact on the world. For over
a century the school has been the place of conversion for thousands of students
through Week of Prayers, campus ministries, dorm and general chapels, and the
campus’ spiritual atmosphere. Oakwood is
by no means heaven, but countless students have reported arriving at Oakwood
unconverted and leaving genuine Christians.
to a lesser or greater extent, determines the spirituality of the larger black
Adventist membership and the general Adventist membership. Alumni carry their fervent and unique brand
of spirituality with them in their professions and spheres of influence and
have a significant impact. Theology
majors from Oakwood pastor hundreds of Adventist churches and occupy positions
of leadership in the church’s administration.
Other alumni such as Barry Black, former chaplain of the United States
Navy and current chaplain of the United States Senate, and Wintley Phipps,
distinguished vocalist and humanitarian, have shared the Adventist faith
Music has been central in the
African American experience. Throughout
its 113 year existence, Oakwood has enjoyed a reputation as the heart of
Adventist music. Many choirs have
garnered Oakwood this distinction—the College Choir, Ars Nova Singers, Dynamic
Praise—but one is most responsible for Oakwood’s international musical acclaim:
As stated earlier, the
influential Dr. Eva B. Dykes created The Aeolians in 1946. While teaching English at Oakwood, Dykes
directed the College Choir. It was from
this choir that Dykes selected a smaller, more elite ensemble. Dykes, a student of Greek, called them
Aeolians, a phrase associated with controlling wind. The early Aeolians mainly sang spirituals
under Dykes’ direction, which she used as a teaching tool for the black
experience in bondage. Each subsequent
Aeolian director would make their unique contributions, but a few are worth
Joni Mae Pierre-Lois,
Aeolian director from 1956-1965, oversaw what is called the “Aeolian
Renaissance.” It was during this period
that the Aeolians began performing in cities across America received national
exposure. On December 13, 1964, the
Aeolians appeared on national television performing the Messiah by Handel. In 1965
the choir performed at New York World’s Fair and the NBC TV program “Strike it
Rich.” Some Aeolians of Adventist and
secular fame during this period are Clifton Davis, Garland and Jaenette Dulan,
Gwen Foster, Walter and Sandra Pearson, Gerald and Linda Pennick, John Street,
and Henry and Carol Wright.
Under the direction of
Jon Robertson (1968-1970) the Aeolians scored a number of important venues: Los
Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium and New York’s Carnegie Hall. A new chorale was also organized called Ars
Nova Singers, whom a then unknown orator named Barry Black toured with.
Alma Blackmon can be
credited with making the Aeolians an international phenomenon. She is the longest serving Aeolian director
to date (1973-1985) and the most legendary.
During Blackmon’s tenure the ensemble performed more than 230 concerts
in dozens of American and international venues, being praised in newspapers and
magazines across the globe. Seven albums
were also produced and enjoyed good sales.
During this period notable Aeolians were Wintley Phipps and Mervyn
Warren, Jr., of Take 6 fame.
Aeolians are now world famous, having performed in myriad storied venues
numerous times, including the White House, and receiving critical acclaim. The Aeolians helped establish Oakwood as the
Mecca of black Adventism by attracting people to Huntsville with musical
prowess and developing talent. Oakwood’s
incredible musical legacy produced the likes of Little Richard, Wintley Phipps,
Clifton Davis, Angela Brown, Janice Chandler, Take 6, Brian McKnight and Virtue.
Weekend: Black Adventism’s Pilgrimage
In 1974 Oakwood began the
traditional Alumni Homecoming Weekend, held annually over the Easter
holiday. Thousands of Oakwood alumni
flock from the four corners of the globe to Huntsville for the weekend’s
festivities, making it the largest annual gathering of out-of-town visitors in
the city of Huntsville. The main Sabbath
service is held at the Von Braun Center downtown, although recently there has
been a trend to bring big name preachers to other local churches for alternate
services. To date, Alumni Weekend has attracted
more than 300,000 people in its 36 year history and is by far the largest
gathering of black Seventh-day Adventists in the world.
Evangelism Council and Campmeeting
In 1977 E.C. Ward, the
pastor of the Oakwood College church, constructed the Oakwood College church building
and the Moseley Complex. Two years later
the first Pastoral Evangelism Council was in the Moseley Complex. This event brought all of the pastors in the
Regional Conferences together for a week full of seminars and reports, along
with of course the rousing preaching.
Aside from Alumni Weekend, this is the largest gathering of African
American SDA ministers.
Also critical to
Oakwood’s Mecca standing is the South Central Conference Campmeeting held there
annually during the summer. South
Central is the territory where the African American Seventh-day Adventist work
began in earnest with the efforts of the Southern Missionary Society. From Mississippi, Nashville, and other parts
south, the black work blossomed. South Central
is the outgrowth of such efforts. Each
summer campmeeting activities provide an opportunity for black Adventists
worldwide to fellowship, share ideas, and gain spiritual renewal.
Archives, E.G. White Estate and Other Developments
In 1970 Oakwood’s
legendary librarian Janneth Lewis began to organize historical materials
pertaining to black Adventism.
Serendipitously, the next year the Alabama Center for Higher Education
was funded through Title III to establish archives in the state’s black
institutions of higher learning. In 1973
Oakwood’s vault—closed for 40 years—was opened and Mrs. Clara Rock, wife of
then president Calvin Rock, discovered important historical materials. That same year the University Museum Exhibit
Room & Archives were opened at the dedication of the new Eva B. Dykes
Library. Mrs. Rock serving as archivist
until 1988; next for 20 years Minneola Dixon served as archivist with
distinction. The Museum Exhibit Room
& Archives house the largest collection of African American Seventh-day
Adventist materials and Oakwood history paraphernalia and documents in the
world. Anyone wishing to do serious
research on black Adventist history must visit the Archives at Oakwood.
More recently, in 1998 Oakwood
opened an E.G. White Estate Brach Office on its campus. Oakwood’s Branch Office contains any Ellen G.
White reference material located in the main Silver Spring, Maryland,
headquarters, making it an important research center for black Adventist.
In 2000 the Oakwood
Memorial Gardens Cemetery was established, and many black Adventists have
purchased plots. Huntsville has always
been one of the premier retirement spots for black Adventists because of
Oakwood, its mild winters, and affordable housing. This Cemetery makes the Huntsville area an even
more attractive retirement spot for black Adventists.
In 2003, the Regional
Conferences moved their main headquarters to the northeast quadrant of the
Oakwood College campus. Oakwood has
always been the source of Regional Conference leaders, now it houses its
Of course the main element that
makes Oakwood University the Mecca of black Adventism is its students. Oakwood has graduated more black Adventists
than any other institution on earth. Indeed,
Oakwood is not just the choice of American students; black Adventists (and
increasingly non-Adventists) at Oakwood represent almost 50 countries annually,
the largest contingents from Jamaica, Canada, Haiti, Bermuda and Trinidad.
Although Adventist college-aged
youth are choosing to go to secular colleges more often these days, Oakwood
still remains the premier choice for African American SDA youth. Oakwood University’s current enrollment is
close to 1,900 students, and since its founding, tens of thousands of black
Adventists have matriculated through Oakwood, some finishing, some not, but all
gaining the “Oakwood experience.”
Oakwood alumni go on to provide
service to every area of the globe in nearly every capacity, enhancing
Oakwood’s prestige and influence. And
they inevitably come back to Oakwood to visit.
Indeed, a visit to the Mecca is an essential experience for every
-Benjamin J. Baker