January 9, 1866, was an important day. Exactly nine months before, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union troops, leaving the Southern black population with a spark of hope and perhaps a lot of skepticism. But on that cold winter day in Nashville, students walked through the doors of the old Union army barracks, holding onto that small spark. Some were seven, others seventy. It’s hard to know whether or not the founders, or the students walking into their first classroom ever, knew they were on the threshold of something big. Something so big that it would open doors where there were walls and create much-needed leaders for a desperate post-war black community.
Lee’s signature was hardly dry before the founders of the Fisk School were hard at work making plans for an educational institution they had dreamed of. John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith aimed not just to start a school but to create a place that would be measured “by the highest standards, not of Negro education, but of American education at its best.” And that’s exactly what they did.
The site for the school was donated by and named for General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau. Less than two years after the start of the school, on August 22, 1867, Fisk University was incorporated. Throughout the nearly 150 years since, Fisk has seen more than its share of prestigious alumni and faculty. Co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, W.E.B. Du Bois, graduated in 1888. Ironically, Booker T. Washington, whose philosophies clashed greatly with Du Bois’, served on Fisk’s Board of Trustees and sent his own children to the university. Other notable Fisk alumni include journalist Ida B. Wells, poet Nikki Giovanni, and Diane Nash, leader of the Nashville Civil Rights movement.
While Fisk alumni have served as ambassadors, presidential cabinet members, and as presidents of other leading universities, perhaps what Fisk has become most well-known for is the arts. And it was the arts that saved this once-struggling school.
Fisk University arrived at a time where funding for black education was scarce, if not completely unheard of. Despite the support it received through donors and the sponsorship of the American Missionary Association (now part of the United Church of Christ), the institution found itself drowning in debt. Saving the beloved school would require a leap of faith. And a song.
Taking the entirety of the school’s treasury with them, a group of students, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, left the university on October 6, 1871, for a concert tour in hopes of raising enough money to save the school. It wasn’t easy, but it worked. The voices of these young, struggling black students captivated audiences. Performing for the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, and Queen Victoria, the Jubilee Singers have become a permanent fixture and pride of Fisk University. In addition to keeping the school running, five years after that autumn day Jubilee Hall was built—the South’s first permanent structure built with the sole purpose of black education.
But it should come as no surprise that Fisk University has long been a friend to the artistic community. With an art collection to rival major galleries around the world, Fisk once claimed Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas as an art professor. The Aaron Douglas Gallery was established in his name and features pieces from the university’s permanent collections, along with work from faculty, students, and contemporary artists. The Fisk University Galleries’ permanent collection contains over four thousand pieces, including work from Diego Rivera and Georgia O’Keefe, who in 1949 donated an impressive collection of art from herself, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Auguste-Pierre Renoir to name a few. The collection was given in honor of her late husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Whether in arts or academics, Fisk University has come a long way since the first day students, most of them former slaves, trudged into the army barracks on a cold Nashville day. With that small spark of hope, seeking an education and a future were the goal. Everyone involved knew there would be mountains to climb and hurdles to jump. But despite setbacks, the dreams of the founders have not only been fulfilled but exceeded. Fisk University was and will remain an educational institution with the highest of standards, “not of Negro education, but of American education at its best.”