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Oakwood University, in Huntsville, Ala., was founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) in 1896 to educate the recently-freed African-Americans of the South. Drawing upon its Christian faith and the emancipation of slaves by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it believed that “all people are created equal” and deserved the opportunity to learn a trade.
Originally, the school was called “Oakwood Industrial School,” opening its doors November 16, with 16 students. A year earlier, the 380-acre former slave plantation was purchased for $6,700. Its towering oak trees – which gave way to the name “Oakwood” – dotted the early residence of America’s most famous slave, Dred Scott. Additional land was acquired in 1918, nearly tripling the campus size to its current 1,186 acres.
Oakwood’s founders were all prominent SDA World Church leaders: co-founder/author Mrs. Ellen G. White, President O. A. Olsen, Treasurer H. Lindsey and G. A. Irwin, the Southern District director.
Throughout its history, the school has undergone four name changes, each one reflective of its growth and advancing academic status:
In the early days, Oakwood Industrial School offered a faith-based industrial training atmosphere for individuals who wanted more than a public education. In 1904, it was expanded to include a broader curriculum; in 1917, it became known as “Oakwood Junior College,” offering a two-year college program with emphasis on subjects paralleling most junior colleges. Several of the principals of the church served the school until it achieved this status and elected its first president, James I. Beardsley, later that year. The school received its first accreditation as a junior college in 1943, and continued moving toward senior college status, which it achieved 15 years later. In 1958, the institution was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to award both associate and baccalaureate degrees.
In 1909, five students graduated in the class of 1909. Nine years later, the first two graduates of Oakwood Junior College received degrees. The first senior college graduating class in the spring of 1945 consisted of nine students. By 1973, the first class to exceed 100 graduates, graduated 124 students; nine years later, the school graduated over 200. The 315 members of the 2008 graduating class were the first to receive degrees under the “Oakwood University” designation.
Oakwood University, a historically Black SDA institution of higher learning, offers quality Christian Education that emphasizes academic excellence, promotes harmonious development of mind, body, and spirit, and prepares leaders in service for God and humanity. The school’s motto, shared by faculty and students, is: Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve. In everything it does, it believes and practices God First, its current slogan. Consistent with its Mission Statement, Oakwood University is in the business of transforming lives – both for now and, more importantly, for eternity.
Since its senior college accreditation nearly 70 years ago, student enrollment and graduation statistics have grown significantly. While there were 16 students initially, by 1917, there were more than 100. Enrollment peaked at 200 in 1927; and, it first topped 1,000 during the 1974-75 academic year. The fall 2011 enrollment reached the 2,000-student milestone with 2006 students.
Leslie N. Pollard, Ph.D., D. Min., current president and a 1978 graduate, says Oakwood prepares students from across the Americas and many other nations, “To serve God and humanity in a variety of positions and careers. Nearly 60 percent of the culturally diverse faculty holds doctorate degrees from a wide-range of universities and colleges around the nation and world.”
Along with SACS, Oakwood is accredited by the Adventist Accrediting Association, the Association of College Business Schools and Programs, the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education, the Council on Social Work Education; the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education; and the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission.
Oakwood is consistently recognized by national media, business and educational associations. US News and World Report ranks it perennially among the nation’s “Best Colleges,” both in terms of the “Historically Black Colleges and Universities” (HBCUs) and “Regional Colleges/South” categories; the magazine also ranks Oakwood among the top ten HBCUs with highest graduation rates. In its first-ever HBCU ranking, the September 2012 EBONY Magazine top-ranked Oakwood’s science program. Additionally, Oakwood is the nation’s fifth-ranked producer of undergraduate black applicants to medical schools, according to the Association for American Medical Colleges. Oakwood’s ISO 9001: 2008 designation distinguishes it as the first and only HBCU, as well as the first and only Alabama and/or SDA higher education institution, so qualified.
The University has tremendous local impact hosting, since 1946, the annual Camp Meeting for the South Central Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, a 10-day spiritual/educational/recreational retreat accommodating 8-10,000 attendees.
The University enjoys a beautiful natural setting on prime acreage and is considered one of the historical landmarks of the city of Huntsville, a cosmopolitan city of approximately 175,000 people located in north central Alabama.
In the near future Oakwood will, for example:
utilize its new chaplaincy team to provide targeted spiritual support and counseling to specific campus groups;
grow its academic programs on the Masters and doctorate levels; strengthen partnerships with fellow Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino and continental African Adventist universities;
expand its Adult Continuing Education/LEAP program; increase alumni and friends’ giving; and include a state-of-the-art, 1,000-student Oakwood Elementary and Academy facility to become a seamless K-18 educational community.