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. Middle Georgia Fisk Alumni Association Set To Host Information Session For Georgia High School Students
  2. Dr. Carlton Maxwell '02 Delivers 2016 Commencement Address at University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy
  3. We Invite You to Show Your Support for Fisk by Making a Generous Gift to the Fisk Fund by June 30th
  4. Fisk University Welcomes Fulbright Scholar to Faculty
  5. Dearly Departed
  6. Inaugural Talented Tenth Gala and Awards Ceremony to be Held to Support Fisk Scholarships
  7. Fisk Faculty Members to Collaborate with Local Artists for Community Art Exhibit
  8. Kayla Elliot '10 Receives Southern Education Foundation Fellowship
  9. Giovanni to Receive Literary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Virginia
  10. Dearly Departed
  11. C. Orlandus Majors '87 Named First Vice President and Relationship Manager of INS Bank
  12. From the Desk of President Frank L. Sims
  13. New Student Orientation Fall 2016
  14. Student Victor Vinson Awarded the U.S. Department of State Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to Study Abroad
  15. United Negro College Fund to Award $50K Planning Grant to Fisk University
  16. Wynell Edwards Retires After 47 Years of Service to Fisk
  17. Fisk Jubilee Singers® concert adds special guests
  18. Fisk University to Host Sesquicentennial Scholarship Gala at Music City Center
  19. NAIA All American Honorable Mention: Stevonna Scott
  20. Fisk University Establishes Research Center with $5m Grant From National Science Foundation
  21. Stieglitz Art Collection Returns To Fisk
  22. Carl Van Vechten Gallery Grand Re-Opening
  23. 87th Annual Spring Arts Festival
  24. Fisk Jubilee Singer finds voice after cancer
  25. Fisk students have long history of fighting injustice
  26. Fisk Jubilee Singers bring gospel tradition to Boston
  27. Fisk Forum
  28. Dearly Departed
  29. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  30. Alpha Beta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Celebrates 90th Birthday with Fisk Beautification Project
  31. Fisk University Celebrates its Sesquicentennial with Various Events Year-Round
  32. Jazz on The Move: The Music and Life of Nat King Cole
  33. Frist Center for the Visual Arts Celebrates WFSK 88.1 with Free Admissions for Faculty, Staff and Alumni
  34. WFSK 88.1 Hits Milestone with Educational Programming
  35. Renowned Vocalist Presents Program of African American Spirituals
  36. Monique Odom ’95 Named Deputy Director of Metro Nashville Parks
  37. Around Campus
  38. Kim Whitley Wins Hollywood Game Night
  39. Fisk Women of Prominence Luncheon
  40. Jazzy 88 WFSK - Upcoming Events
  41. Dearly Departed
  42. Jacquelyn Favours '13 Joins Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance
  43. Fisk Professors Win $333,249 Research Award
  44. Elizabeth Taylor ’02 Joins The Tennessee State Board of Education
  45. Kimberly Goods ’93 Named Teacher Of The Year
  46. Fisk Sunday
  47. Fisk Coverage Of Founders’ Day
  48. Women Of Perfection Participate In Annual MLK Day Of Service
  49. Kansas City Public Schools Names Dr. Mark Bedell ’97 New Superintendent
  50. Berklee College of Music Presents the Fisk Jubilee Singers®
  51. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  52. Dearly Departed
  53. Sesquicentennial Exhibits – John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library
  54. University Open | Monday, January 25th
  55. Classes Cancelled and University | January 22, 2016
  56. Religious Leaders for Fisk Prayer Brunch
  57. 34th Annual Convocation: In Celebration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  58. Holiday Music at Fisk University
  59. University News - October 30, 2015
  60. University News - October 24, 2015
  61. Legacy Day
  62. University News - October 17, 2015
  63. Interim President: wants to improve finances
  64. Interim President
  65. Leadership Transition
  66. Sesquicentennial Calendar
  67. 2015 Jubilee Day Schedule
  68. 2015 Homecoming
  69. 2015 Live Well Benefits Fair
  70. New Student Orientation 2015: Brochure
  71. New Student Orientation 2015: at-a-glance
  72. 30 Great Small Business Degree Programs 2015
  73. Title IX
  74. Fisk Student Selected for Summer Research Experience at National Institute
  75. Fisk Inks Partnership Agreements with Nine Chinese Universities
  76. Trustees Establish Global Studies Fund
  77. Math Club Orientation
  78. Lady Patriot
  79. Nashville Freedom Schools' - Newsletter
  80. The walk for healthcare
  81. Sesquicentennial Art Project artist selected
  82. Volleyball Camp
  83. Awarded Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency
  84. Board of Trustees - New Members
  85. Los Angeles Fisk Alumni Association | Jazz Brunch
  86. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 2
  87. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 1
  88. President Announces Tuition Freeze & CFO Appointment
  89. Fisk 100 Revisited
  90. A $50,000 Makeover for Fisk Student Areas
  91. Student Leaders for 2015-2016 Academic Year
  92. Fisk University Associate Professor Dr. Lean'tin Bracks Has A Banner Year
  93. Inaugural Valda Montgomery Child Health Symposium Held at ASU
  94. Paine College Names Fisk Alumna Provost and VP of Academic Affairs
  95. Students Challenge State Voter ID Law
  96. 2015 Fisk University Baseball Team
  97. Swing Low Sweet Chariot moment captured on new Exeter Pound note
  98. Alumna Named Executive Director
  99. Alumnus Issues $500,000 Challenge to All Alumni
  100. Registration Opens for 2015 Maymester, Summer, and Fall Terms on March 16th!
  101. 2015 Retool Your School
  102. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.18.15)
  103. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.17.15)
  104. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.16.15)
  105. Live Demonstration of Mediation
  106. Fisk University News - January 2015
  107. Dr. Natalie Arnett selected for Prestigous Five-Year NSF Career Award
  108. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  109. Advertisement - Vice President for Finance & Administration
  110. Fisk president discusses historic university's current state and future
  111. Happy Holidays from the Fisk University Family
  112. Christmas at Fisk
  113. Mark Crowder wins National ABRCMS Award
  114. 2014 Fisk Homecoming
  115. First Lifetime Achievement Award to Trustee Emerita Leatrice B. McKissack
  117. Fisk University Maintains National Rankings
  118. Increased Enrollment For Third ConsecutiveYear
  119. Jazzy 88 WFSK Begins 2014 Fall Fund Drive with 9th Annual 48-hour Radiothon
  120. American Red Cross | Blood Drive
  121. Jubilee Day
  122. Sesquicentennial Art Commission
  123. New Student Orientation Fall 2014
  124. From a Spark to a Flame:
  125. Dr. Gladys Inez Ford
  126. Van Vechten Art Gallery
  127. New Student Orientation at-a-glance Fall 2014
  128. Fisk University Pre-College Summer Program
  129. Baccalaureate and Commencement 2014
  130. Gables Elementary
  131. Press Release 04/24/14
  132. Press Release 04/10/14
  133. Fisk wins HCASC challenge
  134. Retool Your School
  135. 2014 Scholars Weekend Schedule
  136. Campus Safety Awareness Week
  137. 85th Annual Spring Arts Festival - Schedule
  138. Business Week at Fisk University
  139. 2014 Honors Convocation
  140. 16th Annual Fisk Research Symposium (FRS) - Call for Abstracts
  141. Fisk University and the Los Angeles Alumni Association of Fisk Univeristy
  142. Fisk University has made great strides in past year
  143. Prelaw Seminar at Fisk University
  144. Keynote at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  145. SACSCOC Reaffirms University's Accreditation
  146. Last Night's Art Talk: Alicia Henry and Jaamal Sheats at Fisk
  147. Fisk University Presents Christmas at Fisk
  148. Fisk Alumni Article Featured in the Marin Independent Journal
  149. Stieglitz Collection Unveiled at Fisk's Partner, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  150. Allstate Quotes for Education
  151. Nashvillians reflect on March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr
  152. Fisk University Celebrates its Trailblazing Students
  153. Honorary Degree Nominations
  154. Fisk University receives 2013 R&D 100 Award
  155. Fisk AVP Jonathan M. Frost named a finalist for 2013 NELA Awards
  156. Golf Outing with Fisk President H. James Williams
  157. Fisk Alumna Mary K. Bush featured on television program