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