This is an expression or interpretation of perspectives based on available records, memories, and impressions. This is taken from the second official recording of Oakwood’s story, the first having been written by the charter historian, Bessie Dickinson Reid, for the observance of the church’s Twenty-fifth Anniversary. This most recent accounting extends the story according to facts researched through church newsletters and bulletins, report files and rolls, and church minutes and those of its organizations. We’ve incorporated records from the old Richmond Baptist Council, the Dover Baptist Association, the Richmond Baptist Association, the Virginia Baptist General Board, and the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. Scrap books and albums have yielded photographs.
Current members may question the omission of the word Memorial in the title of this volume. The church had three names during its first fifty years with the words, Oakwood and Baptist, remaining constant. It seemed clearer, therefore, to use the name under which the church originated in 1916.
Late in 1906 or perhaps early 1907 a Mr. J. W. Gentry, who was active at Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, had a conversation with a Mr. J. H. Flippen, who was a member of East End Baptist Church. The two men were near neighbors in those days because Mr. Gentry lived in the vicinity of 35th and Leigh Streets while Mr. Flippen lived at the corner of 34th and P Streets. The space between the two homes was occupied by the Flippen cow pasture and then a ravine which for years separated the areas. But travel across the gulch became easier when Mr. Flippen, after completing his house, built a footbridge for the convenience of his children. The few adults in the area also found the bridge to be handy, and Mr. Gentry formed the habit of dropping over to the Flippens’ frequently. The two men often talked of their community and its growth. One day they agreed that a church should be built east of the ravine in the area called Oakwood because of the fifty-two year old cemetery on its far boundary.
Mr. Gentry approached his church which was located closer to the area. On October 30, 1907, Broadus Memorial reported to the Baptist Council of Richmond and Manchester, a coordinating agency of churches and mission work, that it was “contemplating the establishment of a mission Sunday school in the Oakwood Addition to the City.” The Council approved the proposition, and when it heard no further report, directed its Secretary, Dr. James A. Buchanan, to confer with Broadus Memorial on the question. One year later on October 8th that church wrote a letter stating “we cannot pursue the idea at this time.”
Seven years passed. Homes were added in the Oakwood area; more streets were built; and the people journeyed to their churches, which even in those days were considerably distant. But a growing number did not make the long trips with any regularity, and one young lady became greatly concerned about their spiritual welfare.
Miss Lottie Dickenson, whose father was the Keeper of Oakwood Cemetary, attended Leigh Street Baptist Church faithfully every Sunday with her family. She decided to arrange a revival service in her home neighborhood with the help of the Lord, her family, and Christians among her acquaintance. As the initial step she canvassed door to door with a small cardboard box seeking funds for expenses and when they were sufficient, she persuaded Dr. W. A. Ayers, who became Field Secretary of the Richmond Council that spring, to lead the services. Dr. Ayers helped her to borrow a large tent to house the “protracted meeting.” It was erected on the west side of the 1600 block of Oakwood Avenue just outside the cemetery boundary.
During ten services in the early fall of 1915 twenty-eight persons professed their faith while others rededicated their lives to His service. Enthusiasm for the Christian cause soared and in their newly found devotion a confidence and hope grew in the people. The question, “What can we do?” was voiced aloud. The idea of a Sunday School revived.
The Oakwood spirit produced its first real fruit on October 25 when two adult and three children’s classes assembled in the homes of Raymond A. Buchanan, William A Dickenson, and J. Kenneth McLennon. The group named itself Oakwood Baptist Sunday School, and in one month overflowed the homes with fifty-two members. Negotiations with the Richmond School Board brought sanctuary on December 5, 1915, in Nathaniel Bacon School at 35th and O Streets. Rapid growth continued and the leaders realized that this Sunday school was nothing less than the nucleus of a new Baptist church. They resolved to build it.
With courage and determination the small group of Sunday school goers set a date for an organizational meeting for a bona fide church. Humbly and happily they drafted an invitation to the twenty-five Baptist churches in the City of Richmond:
“January 10, 1916
“There is a company of some eighty brethren and sisters in the Lord in the vicinity of Oakwood who wish to become an independent church. You are requested to be present and to have your church appoint two or more delegates to meet with us Sunday afternoon, January 16th at three-thirty p.m. to assist in organizing a Baptist church.
“The organization will be formed in the auditorium of Nathaniel Bacon School, Thirty-fifth and O Streets.
“All Baptist churches in the City of Richmond have been requested to send delegates.
N. L. Flippen
More than four hundred persons including representatives of sixteen local Baptist churches filled the school auditorium on the snowy afternoon. Proceedings were recorded by the Reverend S. H. Templeman, pastor of Northside Baptist, who was named Secretary of this presbytery; the Reverend George W. McDaniel, pastor of First Baptist, called the meeting to order and was chosen Moderator. A committee on credentials reported that forty persons were present who desired to join the proposed church.
Dr. James Buchanan, the General Secretary and first employee of the Associated Charities and a member of Leigh Street Baptist Church, read the Articles of Faith, a lengthy document of laws of conduct and principles of organization and discipline. Upon acceptance of the Articles the forty whose credentials were on hand became members of the new church. A Covenant, still in use, was adopted as read and the fledgling church elected its first officer, a clerk. Norman Luther Flippen began a task of precise record keeping which lasted for thirty-four and one-half years. Seven person were received under the watchcare on January 16th with the understanding that if the Clerk received their letters before the following Sunday, their names would be added to the official list of charter members. Reverend W. E. Gibson of Broadus Memorial spoke briefly and the meeting ended with a prayer by Reverend J. J. Wicker of Leigh Street Baptist.
On January 23rd the clerk reported receipt of letters for five of those who came under the watchcare. These five along with the forty whose credentials were received the previous Sunday were declared the charter members of Oakwood Baptist Church. On the same Sunday Miss Blanche Burke (Mrs. Elmo Redwood) professed her faith and became the first candidate for baptism.
In succeeding weeks the young congregation elected and appointed its officers and committees. Henry Lewis Nicholas, a sophomore ministerial student at the University of Richmond, came under the watchcare on January 23rd and reported as first pastor the following week when the church was two weeks old and he was twenty-nine.
W. F. Garnett joined Oakwood on February 16, 1916, and one week later made a startling proposal to appoint a committee to seek a location for a church building. The congregation agreed and named a building fund committee of five men and five women to raise funds.
The property chosen measured 160 feet on the west side of 34th Street by 170 feet on the south side of P Street. Negotiations proceeded with W. S. Forbes, a leading Baptist layman of the city, advancing the funds to purchase the $5,000 lot at public auction from the City of Richmond. The sale was completed on April 27, 1916.
Pastor Nicholas in his annual report dated January 13, 1918, pointed out that in the first year of organization “membership grew from forty-five to one hundred and seventeen and that the stream has flowed on until today we number one hundred and forty . . . . . Contributions for the second year for all purposes amount to $2,400 which is a handsome increase over the preceding year.”
With the support and wishes of his “flock” Henry Lewis Nicholas at the age of thirty-one was ordained a minister on December 16, 1918, shortly after his church along with all others was closed for five weeks by order of the City government during the height of the Spanish influenza epidemic.
In an apparently sudden move and with no recorded reason the congregation voted on May 5, 1919, to alter the name of the church by inserting the word Avenue. Thus the name became Oakwood Avenue Baptist Church. The street from which it took its name began or ended at what would become the back door of the building that would soon be erected.
The dream came true on Monday, March 16, 1920. Miss Lottie Dickinson, who started it all with her cardboard box and spiritual dedication, happily and prayerfully lifted the first shovel full of earth to begin construction of the church building. On Saturday, June 26, Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman, newspaper editor and historian, spoke at cornerstone laying exercises, presided over by Henrico Lodge Number 130, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons.
Five months later on November 28, 1920, the Oakwood congregation gathered for the last time at Nathaniel Bacon School. Members accompanied by friends and well-wishers marched the two and a half blocks to the new church building. The cool, crisp air resounded with jubilant voices and as the turn was made into the walkway, sounds of the hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion,” burst forth. That afternoon a public dedication ceremony filled the church to capacity. In the evening Mr. Nicholas performed the first baptismal service on the church property. In its enthusiasm that day the congregation gave four dollars to the Richmond Baptist Council to purchase Bibles for Murphy’s Hotel at Eighth and Broad Streets plus three dollars for expenses of the Czechoslovakian Convention. At this time Oakwood paid its pastor $900 annually; the new building cost was estimated at $28,975; there were 216 members. Oakwood Avenue Baptist Church “was again on the mountain-top of Christian experience.”
First Change - 1920 through 1931
Survival - 1931 through 1936
Enthusiasm - 1937 through 1939
Anniversary and Debt Free - 1939 through 1943
Astonishing News - 1944 through 1945
Return to Normalcy - 1945 through 1948
Progress - 1949 through 1951
Changing Times - 1952 - 1954