Fisk University History

1865 The End of the Civil War

In 1865, barely six months after the end of the Civil War and just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, three men — John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith — established the Fisk School in Nashville.

The school was named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau, who provided the new institution with facilities in former Union Army barracks near the present site of Nashville's Union Station. In these facilities Fisk convened its first classes on January 9, 1866. The first students ranged in age from seven to seventy, but shared common experiences of slavery and poverty — and an extraordinary thirst for learning.

1867 Fisk University is Incorporated

The work of Fisk's founders was sponsored by the American Missionary Association — later part of the United Church of Christ, with which Fisk retains an affiliation today.

Ogden, Cravath, and Smith, along with others in their movement, shared a dream of an educational institution that would be open to all, regardless of race, and that would measure itself by "the highest standards, not of Negro education, but of American education at its best." Their dream was incorporated as Fisk University on August 22, 1867.


The tradition of excellence at Fisk has developed out of a history marked by struggle and uncertainty. Fisk's world-famous Jubilee Singers® originated as a group of traveling students who set out from Nashville on October 6, 1871, taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, praying that through their music they could somehow raise enough money to keep the doors of their debt-ridden school open.

The singers struggled at first, but before long, their performances so electrified audiences that they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, moving to tears audiences that included William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria.

To this day, each October 6, Fisk pauses to observe the anniversary of the singers' departure from campus in 1871. The contemporary Jubilee Singers, a Grammy recipient group, perform in a University convocation — and conclude the day's ceremonies with a pilgrimage to the grave sites of the original singers, where once again, the old songs are sung at the burial places of their first performers.

1876 Jubilee Hall is Built

The Fisk Jubilee Singers® introduced much of the world to the spirituals as a musical genre— and in the process raised funds that preserved their University and permitted construction of Jubilee Hall, the South's first permanent structure built for the education of black students. As a designated National Historical Landmark, today, Jubilee Hall remains the dramatic focal point of Fisk's campus.

1930 Recognition & Accreditation

Even before regional accreditation was available to African-American institutions, Fisk had gained recognition by leading universities throughout the nation, and by such agencies as the Board of Regents of the State of New York — enabling Fisk graduates to enter graduate and professional schools to study for advanced degrees.

Then, in 1930, Fisk became the first African-American institution to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It was also the first such institution to be placed on the approved lists of the Association of American Universities (1933) and the American Association of University Women (1948).

1953 The Phi Beta Kappa Society

Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation's oldest and most widely known academic honor society. In 1953, Fisk received a charter for the first chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society on a predominantly black campus.

1978 A National Historic District

Jubilee HallIn February, 1978, the Fisk campus was designated as a National Historic District in recognition of its architectural, historic, and cultural significance.

Distinguished Faculty & Alumni

From its earliest days, Fisk has played a leadership role in the education of African Americans. Fisk faculty and alumni have been among America's intellectual, artistic, and civic leaders in every generation since the University's beginning.

Historic Fisk Faculty

  • W.E.B. Du Bois (Fisk class of 1888), the great social critic and co-founder of the NAACP
  • Booker T. Washington, the great educator who was Du Bois' famous philosophical adversary as well as the founder of Tuskegee University, served on Fisk's Board of Trustees, married a Fisk alumna, and sent his children to Fisk
  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the crusading journalist, attended Fisk
  • Charles Spurgeon Johnson, Fisk's first black president, helped to conceive the modern science of sociology
  • The distinguished artist Aaron Douglas served on the Fisk faculty for many years, and his murals decorate the walls of the University's Erastus Milo Cravath Hall
  • Arna Bontemps, Sterling A. Brown, Robert Hayden, and James Weldon Johnson were among several Fisk faculty members who became major figures in American literature
  • The acclaimed composer-musicologists John W. Work Sr., John W. Work, Jr., and John W. Work, III were Fisk alumni and members of the faculty
  • Saint Elmo Brady, one of the first African Americans to achieve eminence in chemistry, was for many years on the Fisk faculty
  • Elmer Samuel Imes, a Fisk alumnus (Fisk Class of 1903) whose work provided an early verification of quantum theory. His was one of the earliest applications of high resolution infrared spectroscopy and provided the first detailed spectra of molecules, which led to the study of molecular structure through infrared spectroscopy: he chaired the Fisk Physics Department until his death in 1941.

Accomplished Fisk Alumni

  • Johnetta Betsch Cole, Ph.D., former president of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women
  • Dennis D. Deveaux, director of finance for Toyota's North American Material Handling
  • Rel Dowdell, acclaimed filmmaker and producer
  • Judith Jamison, acclaimed dancer, choreographer and Artistic Director of the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater
  • Diane Nash, leader of the Nashville Civil Rights Movement
  • The Honorable Hazel R. O'Leary, J.D., seventh U.S Secretary of Energy and past president of Fisk University
  • Alma Powell, author and co-founder of America's Promise Alliance  (7)
  • Carolyn Reid-Wallace, Ph.D., scholar and author, former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and former president of Fisk University
  • Niara Sudarkasa, Ph.D., former and only female president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania
  • Kym Whitley, actor and comedienne
  • John Hope Franklin, the most eminent historian of the African-American experience, is a Fisk alumnus.
  • Timothy B. Donaldson, Ambassador of the Bahamas to the United States and Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States, is a Fisk alumnus.
  • Nikki Giovanni, an award-winning contemporary poet
  • David Levering Lewis, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and professor
  • John Lewis, civil rights activist and U.S. Representative (D-GA).
  • Mandisa Hundley, Grammy-Award-winning singer (Former Jubilee Singer)
  • Johnny Simmons, Emmy-Winning Cinematographer who broke barriers as one of the first Black Cinematographers admitted to the ASC Union.

Probably no single institution has played so central a role as Fisk in the shaping of black learning and culture in America. The Fisk tradition of leadership and excellence continued throughout the 20th century and is being carried on today. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was among the early participants in Charles S. Johnson's famous Race Relations Institute at Fisk.

A Leader in the Education of African Americans