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How Oakwood Became the Mecca of Black Adventism II

This continues an earlier post. . .

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 ministry. 

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.

These preachers 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 as Spiritual Center

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.

Oakwood, 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 globally.

Oakwood as Musical Powerhouse

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: The Aeolians.

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 noting here.

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.

The 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.

Alumni 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. 

Pastoral and 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.

Oakwood 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 headquarters.

Oakwood’s Students

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 Adventist.

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