From a Spark to a Flame: The Dream and Perseverance of Fisk University

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.”


  1. University Open | Monday, January 25th
  2. Classes Cancelled and University | January 22, 2016
  3. Fisk Sunday
  4. 34th Annual Convocation: In Celebration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  5. Holiday Music at Fisk University
  6. University News - October 30, 2015
  7. University News - October 24, 2015
  8. Legacy Day
  9. University News - October 17, 2015
  10. Interim President: wants to improve finances
  11. Interim President
  12. Leadership Transition
  13. Sesquicentennial Calendar
  14. 2015 Jubilee Day Schedule
  15. 2015 Homecoming
  16. 2015 Live Well Benefits Fair
  17. New Student Orientation 2015: Brochure
  18. New Student Orientation 2015: at-a-glance
  19. 30 Great Small Business Degree Programs 2015
  20. Title IX
  21. Fisk Student Selected for Summer Research Experience at National Institute
  22. Fisk Inks Partnership Agreements with Nine Chinese Universities
  23. Trustees Establish Global Studies Fund
  24. Math Club Orientation
  25. Lady Patriot
  26. Nashville Freedom Schools' - Newsletter
  27. The walk for healthcare
  28. Sesquicentennial Art Project artist selected
  29. Volleyball Camp
  30. Awarded Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency
  31. Board of Trustees - New Members
  32. Los Angeles Fisk Alumni Association | Jazz Brunch
  33. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 2
  34. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 1
  35. President Announces Tuition Freeze & CFO Appointment
  36. Fisk 100 Revisited
  37. A $50,000 Makeover for Fisk Student Areas
  38. Student Leaders for 2015-2016 Academic Year
  39. Fisk University Associate Professor Dr. Lean'tin Bracks Has A Banner Year
  40. Inaugural Valda Montgomery Child Health Symposium Held at ASU
  41. Paine College Names Fisk Alumna Provost and VP of Academic Affairs
  42. Students Challenge State Voter ID Law
  43. 2015 Fisk University Baseball Team
  44. Swing Low Sweet Chariot moment captured on new Exeter Pound note
  45. Alumna Named Executive Director
  46. Alumnus Issues $500,000 Challenge to All Alumni
  47. Registration Opens for 2015 Maymester, Summer, and Fall Terms on March 16th!
  48. 2015 Retool Your School
  49. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.18.15)
  50. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.17.15)
  51. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.16.15)
  52. Live Demonstration of Mediation
  53. Fisk University News - January 2015
  54. Dr. Natalie Arnett selected for Prestigous Five-Year NSF Career Award
  55. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  56. Advertisement - Vice President for Finance & Administration
  57. Fisk president discusses historic university's current state and future
  58. Happy Holidays from the Fisk University Family
  59. Christmas at Fisk
  60. Mark Crowder wins National ABRCMS Award
  61. 2014 Fisk Homecoming
  62. First Lifetime Achievement Award to Trustee Emerita Leatrice B. McKissack
  64. Fisk University Maintains National Rankings
  65. Increased Enrollment For Third ConsecutiveYear
  66. Jazzy 88 WFSK Begins 2014 Fall Fund Drive with 9th Annual 48-hour Radiothon
  67. American Red Cross | Blood Drive
  68. Jubilee Day
  69. Sesquicentennial Art Commission
  70. New Student Orientation Fall 2014
  71. From a Spark to a Flame:
  72. Dr. Gladys Inez Ford
  73. Van Vechten Art Gallery
  74. New Student Orientation at-a-glance Fall 2014
  75. Fisk University Pre-College Summer Program
  76. Baccalaureate and Commencement 2014
  77. Gables Elementary
  78. Press Release 04/24/14
  79. Press Release 04/10/14
  80. Fisk wins HCASC challenge
  81. Retool Your School
  82. 2014 Scholars Weekend Schedule
  83. Campus Safety Awareness Week
  84. 85th Annual Spring Arts Festival - Schedule
  85. Business Week at Fisk University
  86. 2014 Honors Convocation
  87. 16th Annual Fisk Research Symposium (FRS) - Call for Abstracts
  88. Fisk University and the Los Angeles Alumni Association of Fisk Univeristy
  89. Fisk University has made great strides in past year
  90. Prelaw Seminar at Fisk University
  91. Keynote at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  92. SACSCOC Reaffirms University's Accreditation
  93. Last Night's Art Talk: Alicia Henry and Jaamal Sheats at Fisk
  94. Fisk University Presents Christmas at Fisk
  95. Fisk Alumni Article Featured in the Marin Independent Journal
  96. Stieglitz Collection Unveiled at Fisk's Partner, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  97. Fisk Homecoming Schedule
  98. Fisk Homecoming
  99. Allstate Quotes for Education
  100. Nashvillians reflect on March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr
  101. Fisk University Celebrates its Trailblazing Students
  102. Honorary Degree Nominations
  103. Fisk University receives 2013 R&D 100 Award
  104. Fisk AVP Jonathan M. Frost named a finalist for 2013 NELA Awards
  105. Golf Outing with Fisk President H. James Williams
  106. Fisk Alumna Mary K. Bush featured on television program