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Annual Spring Arts Festival

History of the Arts FestivalSpring Arts Festival

Annual Spring Arts Festival is an established tradition at Fisk University. In 1929, the first Festival was held under the auspices of the Fisk Music School with Ray Francis Brown as director. Invitations were sent to Nashville patrons of music and to friends of Fisk all over the country requesting their presence at the three-day celebration known then as “The Festival of Negro Music and Fine Arts.”

This cultural event opened with a concert of Jubilee Music, which featured the Fisk Jubilee Singers®, under the direction of Mrs. James A. Myers, and the Men’s Glee Club and Mozart Society (Choir) both directed by John W. Work.

The second day featured a program of folk songs, dances and gymnastics by the Department of Physical Education for Women, a talk by James Weldon Johnson, a student recital, an art exhibit and a fashion show with the theme “Sugar and Spice – Fisk Fashions for 1929.” Festivities for the third day began with regular Sunday morning church service. The afternoon activities consisted of a concert of sixteenth century church music, music by Russian composers, Bach and others.

The festival closed with a tea in the parlor of Jubilee Hall honoring Maggie Porter Cole, one of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers®, Mabel Lewis Imes, a former Jubilee Singer and Mary Fisk Park, daughter of Clinton B. Fisk. The Board of Trustees, who met during the Festival, was present at the tea. As a result of the success of the first Festival, it was decided that the event should become an annual affair.

Over the years, guest participants have included such luminaries as Countee Cullen and Robert Hayden who shared their poetry, Arthur Spingarn, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pearl Buck, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Carl Rowan, Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and J. Mason Brewer who have been among the convocation and seminar speakers, musicians who have ranged from Roland Hayes, Philippa Duke Schuyler and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to Miriam Mekeba, Quincy Jones and Cannonball Adderly, and dancers representing the Pearl Primus, Jose Limon and Jean Leon Destine Dance Troupes.

In conjunction with the seminars, concerts, film showings and play productions, there have been several noteworthy art exhibits. Items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paintings by Aaron Douglas and other members of the Fisk faculty, portraits by Carl Van Vechten and works by Elizabeth Catlett have been displayed at the Library, Livingston Hall and in later years, the Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery.

There were several historic events connected with the University, which occurred during the Festivals. In 1930, there was the laying of the cornerstone for the Erastus Milo Cravath Library. In 1959, there was the dedication of the Adam K. Spence Student Union Building, the W.E.B. DuBois Hall and Park-Johnson Hall. Events such as the crowning of the Festival King and Queen, the Beaux Art Ball and dance recitals were some of the most popular activities for Fisk students.

Several awards have been presented to individuals for their outstanding achievements. In 1932, Roland Hayes received the Doctor of Music degree and Marian Anderson, Dorothy Maynor, Pauli Marshall and Undine Smith Moore are among those who have received the Humanitarian Award.

No account of the history of the Annual Spring Arts Festival would be complete without mentioning our own talented “in house” artists. The Fisk Jubilee Singers® and the University Choir have been integral parts of the Festival since its inception. The Stagecrafters, founded in 1926, joined the festivities in the early thirties and Orchesis made its first appearance in 1954. The Modern Black Mass Choir and the Jazz Ensemble became part of the Festival in 1972.

During recent years, the Festival has attracted well-known participants like Shirley Chisholm, Nikki Giovanni, Hubert Laws, and the Boy’s Choir of Harlem.

From all indications, it is evident that Fisk University stands in the forefront as a medium for cultural expression while she continues to subscribe to her legacy of excellence in the arts.

— Written by the Beth Madison Howse ’65 (1943-2012), who was the Special Collections Librarian for 37 years

Special Collections Librarian