Oakwood at the Crossroads A Historical Perspective

Building Toward University Status

By Eurydice V. Osterman


From the very beginning Oakwood has had an identity. In fact, Oakwood is the only Seventh-day Adventist school with a name that identifies who we are, a symbol of strength--oakwood--and whose we are: Gods creation, for He took nothing and made something from it. He took one of the most degrading symbols of human existence, a slave plantation, and transformed it into one of the most respected symbols in the world--an institution of higher learning.

Tough Times

God, however, did not prevent the threat of failure, as was so often the outlook during the embryonic years from 1896 to 1904, nor did He change the conditions of the time to make things easier. Instead, He chose a leader as He did with the Children of Israel. Ellen White was His spokesperson who gave guidance and counsel in the operation of the school for the first 21 years of its existence. He also sent a "mighty angel" to stand at the gate, to guarantee the schools success.(Adventist Heritage, p. 7).
Aside from the payment of teachers salaries, there was no financial assistance from the General Conference, and Oakwood would be totally dependent upon God's providence and care in order to survive. The creation flourished as He led the growth and development of the little acorn into a mighty oak.

Through the years the identity of Oakwood has been rooted in its spiritual culture, development of leaders, academic preparation, music, reputation, and impact on the global community.

Early Beginnings

Oakwood Industrial School, its name from 1896 to 1904, reflected the influence of the Industrial Revolution impacting Huntsville, the nation, and the world at the time of the schools founding. Although the mission and the purpose of the school were to train the students to become teachers, preachers and nurses in order to evangelize their own, most of their time was spent working in the campus industries. The school struggled to survive, and after a visit to the campus in 1903, General Conference president A. G. Daniells even posed its closing. That prompted Ellen White to call for new leadership at the school, in the person of E.R. Rogers, because "those who have had charge of the school have not felt the importance of putting brain, bone, and muscle to the task in an effort to make the school a success." (ibib., p. 10).

Thus, the tide of financial ruin began to abate. The providence of God intervened through strong, progressive leadership. The next name change, Oakwood Manual Training School (from 1904 to 1917), reflected the emphasis upon manual Iabor.

Developing Years

Later, under the leadership of C. J. Boyd (1911-1917), the school made rapid progress in the development of the physical plant and its industries, modeled after other institutions such as Hampton Institute, Southern Alabama, and Tuskegee Institute, home to Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Increased enrollment required academic expansion, especially after Jessie Jones, an official from the U.S. I)epartment of the Interior, visited the school and recommended that more attention be given to academic subjects (ibid., pp. 24, 25). Until then, students were expected to make industrial courses their first choice. In spite of these circumstances, however, Oakwood reached a very significant milestone during this period: the graduation of its first class of five nurses, in 1909. Three years later, in 1912, the first ministerial student, Francis Alexander Osterman, graduated (ibid., p. 22). His daughter is author of this article.

When the recommendation was made, the General Conference approved the expansion from twelve to fourteen grades, and the school became Oak-wood Junior College (from 1917 to 1942). This new status precipitated other changes as well. First, the school would have to apply to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) for B-Class certification. In addition to this, the principal, whose title would now change to president, would have to have a college degree. This requirement ultimately ended the leadership of Principal Boyd, who did not hold a degree. James I. Beardsley (1917-1923) was subsequently appointed the first president of the college. This also marked the beginning of students being charged tuition.

Coming of Age

During the junior college era. Oakwood reached aiiother significant milestone, the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary. One might expect that by now more emphasis would have been placed upon academics. However, this was not the case. Industrial work was still a priority. A change in this situation, precipitated by a strategically organized student strike during a meeting of the College Board in 1 93 I, led to the appointment of the schools first Black president, James L. Moran (1932-1945), and to the addition of more Black faculty and staff members.

Under the leadership of the next president, Frank L Peterson (1945-1954), the expiration of the schools B-Class certification was rapidly drawing near. A decision had to be made on whether or not to seek senior status. Thus, timing and strong, progressive leadership set in motion the process for attaining senior college status.

In I 951 the board considered a change of status Once again, and the General Con fer-- ence appointed a special survey committee to conduct a feasibility study whether the College should pursue this course. The committee had to study the buildings, facilities, and various departments to determine what services Oakwood would be able to render what the needs of the constituency were, and what won Id be the requisites for supplying those needs. They also had to study how the constituency would be involved in supporting Oakwood, whether or not the constituency would serve the entire North American Division, or continue to draw students from certain territories or areas. They considered faculty degree requirements, faculty-student ratios, budget allocations for instruction, library resources, operating subsidies or other non instructional income, salaries, and so on. (Mervyn A. Warren, A Vision Splendid, pp. 173, 174).

At the conclusion of their investigation, the committee found that it was indeed feasible to attain senior college status, and recommended that Oakwood begin immediately to pursue this course. They also recommended to begin immediate constrtiction of a library--on the spot where the institution began in l896--in place of the Old Mansion of the slave plantation. They specified the hiring of a trained librarian, and that the board appropriate $5,000.00 annually to increase the library collections. The recommendations also called for two-thirds of the faculty to have masters degrees in the academic field they would teach, that the college build up the administrative organization, functions, student personnel work, and records; and that a handbook be developed depicting the colleges organization and policies (ibid., p. 175).

After the board and the General Conference voted to accept the recommendations of the feasibility committee, four other committees, Nominating, Budget, Executive and Accreditation, were appointed to execute the process. History records that in December 1958, under the leadership of Dr. Garland Millet, (1954-1963), Oakwood became a fully accredited senior college.

Different Status, Same Mission

Upon examining the identity of Oak-wood through its mission, we find that the purpose of Oakwood Industrial School was to encourage the education of promising young men and women who could be trained to evangelize the South.

The mission and purpose of Oakwood Manual Training School was expanded to include education along evangelical, industrial, and all other useful lines. However, it was believed that true educatit)n consisted of balancing book knowledge and practical work, and that "if one must be neglected, it should be the books" (Adventist Heritage, p.21).

In addition to a religious emphasis, the mission and purpose of Oakwood Junior College was to teach the students to do earnest and faithful work. Emphasis upon manual labor appears to be a reflection of the attitude of a society that frowned upon the education of the Negro.

The mission and purpose of Oakwood College (when it finally achieved senior status) had not only shifted to that of concern for the spiritual welfare and character development of the students, but also expressed a concern for reaching the students to work efficiently, thtis equipping them to be effective members of society.

Today, the mission has expanded to include the spiritual, intellectual, cultural, personal adjustment, vocational, and the physical, all of which are designed to lead to the ability to render global service.

Crossroads Again

From the beginning, Oakwood has had an identity which has been shaped by the times, the circumstances, its leadership, and its mission. It is interesting to note that the root of all major crises at Oakwood, each occurring approximately every 30 to 35 years, have been implanted in identity.
Once again, more than 50 years after obtaining senior college status, strong, progressive leadership from Dr. Delbert Baker, Oakwoods tenth president, has brought Oakwood to the same crossroads, circumstances, and ironically, to the same questions and concerns from history--should we once again progress, move ahead and change from college status to university status?

As consideration is given to Oak-woods pursuit of university status, we have a word from the Lord through His spokesperson, Ellen White, who said: "We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history" (Ellen White, life Sketches, p.186).

Eurydice V. Osterman, D.M.A, is a professor of music at Oakwood College. This paper was completed as part of wider research and feasibility studies to build the college to "university status."