Barely six months after the end of the Civil War, and just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, three men — John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith —established the Fisk School in Nashville, named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau, who provided the new institution with facilities in former Union Army barracks near the present site of Nashville's Union Station. In these facilities Fisk convened its first classes on January 9, 1866. The first students ranged in age from seven to seventy, but shared common experiences of slavery and poverty — and an extraordinary thirst for learning.
The work of Fisk's founders was sponsored by the American Missionary Association — later part of the United Church of Christ, with which Fisk retains an affiliation today. Ogden, Cravath, and Smith, along with others in their movement, shared a dream of 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." Their dream was incorporated as Fisk University on August 22, 1867.
The tradition of excellence at Fisk has developed out of a history marked by struggle and uncertainty. Fisk's world-famous Jubilee Singers originated as a group of traveling students who set out from Nashville in 1871, taking 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, but before long, their performances so electrified audiences that they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, moving to tears audiences that included William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria. The Jubilee Singers introduced much of the world to the spiritual as a musical genre — and in the process raised funds that preserved their University and permitted construction of Jubilee Hall, the South's first permanent structure built for the education of black students. As a designated National Historical Landmark, today, Jubilee Hall remains the dramatic focal point of Fisk's campus. To this day, each October 6, Fisk pauses to observe the anniversary of the singers' departure from campus in 1871. The contemporary Jubilee Singers perform in a University convocation — and conclude the day's ceremonies with a pilgrimage to the grave sites of the original singers, where once again, the old songs are sung at the burial places of their first performers.
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), the great social critic and co-founder of the NAACP. Booker T. Washington — the great educator who was Du Bois' famous philosophical adversary as well as the founder of Tuskegee University — served on Fisk's Board of Trustees, married a Fisk alumna, and sent his own children to Fisk. Charles Spurgeon Johnson, Fisk's first black president, helped to conceive the modern science of sociology. The distinguished artist Aaron Douglas served on the Fisk faculty for many years, and his murals decorate the walls of the University's administration building. Arna Bontemps, Sterling A. Brown, Robert Hayden, and James Weldon Johnson were among several Fisk faculty members who became major figures in American literature. The acclaimed composer-musicologists John W. Work Sr., John W. Work, Jr., and John W. Work, III were Fisk alumni and members of the faculty. Professor St. Elmo Brady, one of the first African-Americans to achieve eminence in chemistry, was for many years on the Fisk faculty. Probably no single institution has played so central a role as Fisk in the shaping of black learning and culture in America.
The Fisk tradition of leadership and excellence is being carried on today. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was among the early participants in Charles S. Johnson's famous Race Relations Institute at Fisk. John Hope Franklin, the most eminent historian of the African-American experience, is a Fisk alumnus. Nikki Giovanni, the award-winning contemporary poet, is a Fisk graduate as well. Experiments developed in Fisk's physics laboratories have orbited the earth in the space shuttle. The University's Molecular Spectroscopy Research Laboratory is internationally recognized. Fisk faculty members— even while emphasizing teaching above all other priorities — carry out funded research projects to a degree excelled by no college or university of comparable size.
Even before regional accreditation was available to African-American institutions, Fisk had gained recognition by leading universities throughout the nation, and by such agencies as the Board of Regents of the State of New York — enabling Fisk graduates to enter graduate and professional schools to study for advanced degrees. Then, 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) and the American Association of University Women (1948). 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, black college accredited for its music programs by the National Association of Schools of Music. Today, Fisk also holds memberships in the American Association of Schools of Music, the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Its department of chemistry is on the approved list of the American Chemical Society. Fisk is a member of the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States and a sponsoring institution of the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Inc. It is approved for teacher certification purposes by the State of Tennessee Department of Education.