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How Oakwood Became the Mecca of Black Adventism

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

When 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 central status?

Oakwood’s Beginnings

In 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 own school.

Finding 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.

The 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.

But 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.

Oakwood 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.

Oakwood Begins to Establish Itself as the Mecca

At 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.

As 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.

And 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 previously.   

Oakwood’s Renaissance

The 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.

The Black Adventist Intelligentsia

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.

Anna 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 Anna Knight.

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 memory.

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.

The Strike of 1931

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.

Producing Formative Leaders

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 campus.

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.

To be continued tomorrow. . .

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