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