Solon Marquis Jacobs was the first principal of Oakwood Industrial School. He was born on October 7, 1846, in Tonawanda, New York. He became a member of the Fontanelle, Iowa Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1882. While there, he held several denominational positions, including district supervisor and field secretary of the Iowa Conference. In 1896 he was asked by the General Conference to go to Huntsville, Alabama, to manage the operations of the school to be started for the “colored people.” On April 3, 1896, he and his family arrived to lay the foundation for Oakwood University.
Mr. Jacobs’ agenda was to prepare the physical plant, develop long-range plans for both the school and the farm, and to set a date for the opening of school. He got busy right away. The Old Mansion was expanded to include a kitchen and dining room, and a new two-story building was constructed to function as classrooms on the lower level and a boys’ dormitory on the upper floor. It was expected that the new building would be completed by October 1, so the opening day was announced as October 7, 1896. That was not to be as construction was delayed due to insufficient funds. Students who arrived for the October 7 start date worked during the day and attended informal night classes taught in Old Mansion by the Jacobs’ children. The building was completed by November, and with the curriculum decided (English, religion and industrial arts/work), the doors opened officially on Wednesday, November 16, 1896. Sixteen students and three teachers including Principal Jacobs, Arthur F. Hughes, and H.S. Shaw made up the school body.
Solon Jacobs earned the reputation of being a diligent worker, a scrupulous manager, and a friendly neighbor. He did much to build trust and goodwill between the residents of Huntsville and the suspicious new school where uneducated children of slaves were taught by outsiders. Mr. Jacobs won the respect of one wary neighbor by seeking his advice about farming methods unique to Alabama’s red soil. On another occasion, Mr. Jacobs surprised a neighbor whose barns and farm equipment had been destroyed by fire. Mr. Jacobs and a group of students showed up and announced they were there to plant his corn. After a brief conversation, the once hostile neighbor asked forgiveness for some unkind things he had said regarding Mr. Jacobs’ role in starting the school. Mr. Jacobs assured him he had already forgiven him, as evidenced by his presence. He also did the same for other neighbors, both black and white. As word spread about these acts of kindness, the community cautiously regarded the school in a positive light.
Balancing the role of principal and farm manager was a challenge for Solon Jacobs. At the end of the first year, he decided that in order to maintain the quality of the academic program, it was best for him to resign as principal and devote his full attention to managing the farm. For the next five years he did that with perseverance and integrity. In 1902 he completed his tenure at Oakwood and moved to Graysville, Tennessee.
Solon Jacobs died on March 7, 1927, and was buried in Graysville. He was survived by his partner in love and business, wife, Mariette Millard Jacobs, and sons, Lewen and Burton. One hundred and twenty years later Oakwood University reflects on the legacy of this pioneer and echoes the words of Ellen G. White, “…this is the Lord’s institution.”1
By Paulette McLean Johnson, MLIS, Ed.S., Library Services Director, Eva B. Dykes Library
Obituary from Field Tidings, March 30, 1927, Ooltewah, Tennessee. Retrieved from http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=61148555
Warren, M.A. (2010). Oakwood! A Vision Splendid Continues: 1896-2010, pp.8-45.
1 White, E.G. Speech given at Huntsville School Chapel, June 21, 1904. http://adventistdigitallibrary.org/adl-422465/place-called-oakwood