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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.”

News

  1. Increased Enrollment For Third ConsecutiveYear
  2. Jazzy 88 WFSK Begins 2014 Fall Fund Drive with 9th Annual 48-hour Radiothon
  3. American Red Cross | Blood Drive
  4. Jubilee Day
  5. Sesquicentennial Art Commission
  6. New Student Orientation Fall 2014
  7. From a Spark to a Flame:
  8. New Student Orientation at-a-glance Fall 2014
  9. Fisk University Pre-College Summer Program
  10. Baccalaureate and Commencement 2014
  11. Gables Elementary
  12. Press Release 04/24/14
  13. Press Release 04/10/14
  14. Fisk wins HCASC challenge
  15. Retool Your School
  16. 2014 Scholars Weekend Schedule
  17. Campus Safety Awareness Week
  18. 85th Annual Spring Arts Festival - Schedule
  19. Business Week at Fisk University
  20. 2014 Honors Convocation
  21. 16th Annual Fisk Research Symposium (FRS) - Call for Abstracts
  22. Fisk University and the Los Angeles Alumni Association of Fisk Univeristy
  23. Fisk University has made great strides in past year
  24. Prelaw Seminar at Fisk University
  25. Keynote at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  26. SACSCOC Reaffirms University’s Accreditation
  27. Last Night's Art Talk: Alicia Henry and Jaamal Sheats at Fisk
  28. Fisk University Presents “Christmas at Fisk”
  29. Fisk Alumni Article Featured in the Marin Independent Journal
  30. Stieglitz Collection Unveiled at Fisk’s Partner, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  31. Fisk Homecoming Schedule
  32. Outlook Email Outage
  33. Fisk Homecoming
  34. Allstate Quotes for Education
  35. Nashvillians reflect on March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr
  36. Fisk University Celebrates its Trailblazing Students
  37. Honorary Degree Nominations
  38. Fisk University receives 2013 R&D 100 Award
  39. Fisk AVP Jonathan M. Frost named a finalist for 2013 NELA Awards
  40. Golf Outing with Fisk President H. James Williams
  41. Fisk Alumna Mary K. Bush featured on television program