Thursday, 7 February 2013


Six months after the Civil War ended, John Ogden and the Reverends Erastus Cravath and Edward Smith established The Fisk Free Colored School, in Nashville, Tennessee.  The school was named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk, a Civil War hero and Assistant Commissioner of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau, who also endowed $30,000 to the school. The American Missionary Association was the primary, financial sponsor; and the Freedmen’s Bureau provided the school with facilities in former Union Army barracks, near the present site of Nashville’s Union Station. First classes were held on January 9, 1866; and the first students, being 200 in number, ranged from aged seven to seventy – all sharing the common experience of slavery and poverty, and with a desire to quench their thirst for education. Word spread quickly, and the enrollment grew to 900 students, within the first, four months of opening its doors.

General Clinton B. Fisk

The Founders’ dream was to go further with the school and “establish an educational institution that would be open to all, regardless of race, and that would measure itself by "the highest standards, not of Negro education, but of American education at its best." With Tennessee's passage of legislation to support public education, leaders saw a need for training teachers, and their dream was officially incorporated as Fisk University  in August 1867.

To Fisk’s Founders, religion and education went hand in hand. Bible study and daily prayer services were therefore part of the school’s regimen. The original teachers were themselves missionaries and sacrificed a great deal of material comfort to work at Fisk, where facilities were primitive, curricular materials were few, and even meals were scarce. In addition to teaching, many of them participated in missionary work in and around Nashville. The school’s strict enforcement of its rules —helped to maintain its morally-upright and Protestant character.

Despite the funding they had received, because there were so many students and so few faculty and facilities, Fisk suffered financially.  In 1870, Adam Knight Spence became principal of Fisk. He thought that a traveling choir might be able to help raise funds, so the Fisk Jubilee Singers were born, in 1871. The group included ten students—all former slaves—and two advisors.

Click here to hear a 3-minute recording of the Founding Fisk Jubilee Singers

Founding Fisk Jubilee Singers

Fisk’s treasurer, George L. White, also became the choir director. When the choir traveled, initially locally, George would take the entire contents of the University treasury with them, for travel expenses, praying that through their music, they could somehow raise money enough to keep open the doors of their debt-ridden school. The singers struggled, at first, because local, White residents were very openly and aggressively hostile to a Black school being on their doorstep. This resulted in frequent acts of physical violence toward the choir, as well as the students and teachers on campus.

However, before long, their performances so electrified audiences that they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, moving to tears audiences which included Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss and Queen Victoria. The Jubilee Singers introduced much of the world to the Negro Spiritual as a musical genre — and in the process, raised $50,000, in the early 1870s, which preserved their University and permitted construction of Jubilee Hall, the South's first permanent structure built for the education of Black students. Jubilee Hall is now a National Historical Landmark and remains the dramatic, focal point of Fisk's campus. Additionally, to this day, primarily because of The Jubilee Singers, many Europeans, especially, love Gospel Music; and The Jubilee Singers continue to perform, to the delight of audiences around the world.

Mark Twain

Queen Victoria

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, at Yale University, has various documents relating to The Fisk Jubilee Singers, including the Story of the Jubilee Singers, a written documentary of their second tour of the United Kingdom, and promotional documents for competing groups from other Southern states. The records for these documents can be found in Orbis, the Yale Library catalog.

Click here to hear today's Fisk Jubilee Singers performing at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Today's Fisk Jubilee Singers in front of Jubilee Hall

From its earliest days, Fisk has played a leadership role in the education of African-Americans. Fisk faculty and alumni have been among America's intellectual, artistic, and civic leaders in every generation since the University's beginnings. Among them have been such figures as W.E.B. Du Bois (Fisk class of 1888), sociologist, scholar and the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

W.E.B. DuBois

The school’s third president, Reverend James G. Merrill, resigned in 1908 out of frustration with the school’s continuing struggle to make ends meet and his own lack of talent as a fundraiser. Ironically, it was the 1909 election of Booker T. Washington – a longtime advocate of vocational education for African-Americans – to Fisk’s Board of Trustees, that ensured the school’s survival, during the early decades of the twentieth century. Mr. Washington’s wife, Margaret, a tireless campaigner for racial uplift and a Fisk graduate, was also very much admired by Andrew Carnegie, the steel industrialist and philanthropist. So much so, that he donated a library to the school. Fisk’s new president, George A. Gates, was an experienced administrator and expanded the school’s curriculum during this time. He also worked with other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to establish uniform admission requirements and to raise standards. With the help of Sociologist and Fisk graduate, George Edmund Haynes, a training center for social workers was created at Fisk in 1910, and the school became known for Sociology. By 1920, the school had an endowment of one million dollars. 

Booker T. Washington and wife, Margaret, with children from a previous marriage

Andrew Carnegie

In 1930, Fisk became the first African-American institution to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It was also the first such institution to be placed on the approved lists of the Association of American Universities (1933).

In 1947, Fisk heralded its first African-American president in Charles Spurgeon Johnson. Charles had been the Chair of Fisk’s Sociology Department since 1928, and author of the well-known study, The Negro in Chicago. He had also been the editor of Opportunity magazine, a noted periodical of the Harlem Renaissance. Just prior to assuming the presidency, Charles established the Race Relations Institute in 1945, which has since influenced the Federal Government’s policy toward segregation in the military, the labor market and schools.

Charles Spurgeon Johnson

In 1949, painter Georgia O'Keeffe, facilitated the exchange of 99 paintings from the estate of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, which forms the Alfried Stieglitz Collection, at the school. She also made an outright gift of two of her own paintings to the school. These are on permanent display at the University's Carl Van Vechten Galleries. However, this year, in order to raise some funds, the university will begin a two-year rotation with Crystal Bridges.

In 1952, Fisk received a charter for the first Phi Beta Kappa chapter on a predominantly-Black campus. In 1954, Fisk became the first, private, HBCU accredited for its music programs by the National Association of Schools of Music.

Phi Beta Kappa Key

In 2002 Fisk University and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, established an educational partnership to expand opportunities for students, faculty, and staff at both institutions: Fisk with the special qualities of a small, liberal arts college, and Case Western with others as a major research university.

Since 2004, Fisk University has been directed by its 14th president, the Honorable Hazel O'Leary, former Secretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton and Fisk alumna. She is the second woman to serve as president of the university. On June 25, 2008, Fisk announced that it had successfully raised $4 million during the fiscal year ending June 30. It ended nine years of budget deficits and qualified for a Mellon Foundation challenge grant.

Hazel O'Leary w/Fisk students

The Fisk tradition of leadership and excellence continues today. Experiments developed in Fisk's Physics laboratories have orbited the earth in the now-retired Space Shuttle; and the University's Molecular Spectroscopy Research Laboratory is internationally recognized.
Fisk University has a strong record of academic excellence: it has graduated more African Americans who go on to earn Ph.Ds in the Natural Sciences than any other institution.

Fisk University is one of four HBCUs to have earned a tier-one ranking on the list of Best National Liberal Arts Colleges in the 2011 edition of Best Colleges by U.S. News and World Reports.

In 2011, CBS Money Watch ranked professors at Fisk University 19th out of 650 colleges and universities in the nation.

In addition to aforementioned Fisk alumni, other notable ones include: Johnnetta Cole, anthropologist and former President of Spelman College and Bennett College; Arthur Cunningham, Musical Composer, who studied at Juilliard and Columbia University; John Hope Franklin, historian, professor, scholar, author of landmark text, From Slavery to Freedom; Nikki Giovanni, poet, author, professor and scholar; Perry Wilbon Howard, Assistant U.S. Attorney General under President Herbert Hoover; Judith Jamison, pioneering Dancer and Choreographer, former artistic Director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; John Lewis, Congressman, Civil Rights activist, former President of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Jimmie Lunceford, famous bandleader in the Swing Music era; Robert McFerrin, the first African-American male to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and father of singer/musician, Bobby McFerrin; Ida B. Wells; Tom Wilson, Music producer, best known for his work with Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa and Frank Yerby, the first African-American to publish a novel that sold more than a million copies (The Foxes of Harrow).

Johnnetta B. Cole

Nikki Giovanni

Congressman John Lewis

Fisk University has been so important to the shaping of American and even international academia and culture, through its very existence and through its alumni.  The D.E.T.A.I.L.S. represents Fisk's core values, which reflect its overall ethical and moral engagement. They are: Diversity, Excellence, Teamwork, Accountability, Integrity, Leadership and Service. 

Long may the school reign supreme.

Sources: Wikipedia, Fisk University, Google Images and PBS

1 comment:

  1. It is APRIL 2014 and I cannot believe that there are No Comments on your blog. It is fantastic information! I shared it on my facebook page, named Sleighton Farm Views, since their first superintendent Martha Falconer attended or was on a Fisk Committee. Plus, one of the cottages at the soon to be demolished campus, was named after DuBOIS!
    Barbara in Delco, Pa.