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 Department of Arts and Languages presents the Fall 2016 Humanities Workshop
  2. Civil Rights activist Diane Nash to deliver keynote address for Fisk University Jubilee Day Convocation
  3. Jubilee Singers Exhibit
  4. Fisk University to launch The Executive Series for Nashville Top Executives
  5. Fisk University Awarded $452,000 from National Science Foundation
  6. Jubilee Day Heritage Concert
  7. Powernomics Corporation of America founder to speak at Fisk University for Lecture Series
  8. Author and Former U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Chairwoman to speak at Fisk University as part of Fisk Lecture Series
  9. Ebenezer Armah Receives BDPA Foundation Scholarship
  10. Author Mary Frances Berry to Speak at Fisk University for Lecture Series
  11. Alicia Henry Named 2016 Winner of the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art
  12. Hildateri Parks Smith '02 Named Principal of McGavok Elementary School
  13. Darlean Martin '18 Accepted into University of Oklahoma Structural Biology Research Program
  14. Fisk University to Participate in Interfaith Community Service Campus Challenge
  15. From the Desk of President Frank L. Sims
  16. Upcoming Events
  17. In Memoriam
  18. Sirius XM Radio Host Joe Madison to Speak at Fisk University for Fisk Lecture Series
  19. Fisk University Awarded $404,000 Grant from Army Research Office for Defense Research
  20. Fisk University Welcomes Fullbright Scholar to Faculty
  21. Inaugural Talented Tenth Gala and Awards Ceremony to be Held to Support Fisk Scholarships
  22. Fisk Faculty Members to Collaborate with Local Artists for Community Art Exhibit
  23. Kayla Elliot '10 Receives Southern Education Foundation Fellowship
  24. Giovanni to Receive Literary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Virginia
  25. Inaugural Talented Tenth Gala and Awards Ceremony Held to Support Fisk Scholarships
  26. Stephanie Woodson '10 Named ZETA of the Year
  27. Dr. Carlton Maxwell '02 Delivers 2016 Commencement Address at University of Tennessee College of Pharmacy
  28. Mathew Knowles '75 Receives Doctorate From Cornerstone Christian Bible College
  29. We Invite You to Show Your Support for Fisk by Making a Generous Gift to the Fisk Fund by June 30th
  30. Dearly Departed
  31. C. Orlandus Majors '87 Named First Vice President and Relationship Manager of INS Bank
  32. From the Desk of President Frank L. Sims
  33. New Student Orientation Fall 2016
  34. Student Victor Vinson Awarded the U.S. Department of State Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship to Study Abroad
  35. United Negro College Fund to Award $50K Planning Grant to Fisk University
  36. President Frank L. Sims Hosts “Golf Outing with the President” During 2016 Alumni Reunion Weekend
  37. Asher Turney, MD '99 Named to Nashville's Black 40 Under 40 by Stay On The Go Magazine
  38. Iral Davis Porter ’60 Honored by the National Medical Association
  39. Joyce Searcy '71 Receives Metro Nashville Community Service Award
  40. KAPPA GAMMA CHAPTER of ZETA PHI BETA Sorority Kicks Off 50th Year Anniversary Celebration
  41. Dearly Departed
  42. Around Campus
  43. Dearly Departed
  44. Around Campus
  45. Wynell Edwards Retires After 47 Years of Service to Fisk
  46. Fisk Jubilee Singers® concert adds special guests
  47. NAIA All American Honorable Mention: Stevonna Scott
  48. Fisk Alumna Dr. Lauren Hicks Barton ’75 Elected President of the Michigan Occupational and Environmental Association
  49. Fisk University to Establish Research Center with $5M Grant From National Science Foundation
  50. Fisk University to Host Sesquicentennial Scholarship Gala at Music City Center
  51. Fisk University Establishes Research Center with $5m Grant From National Science Foundation
  52. Frist Center for the Visual Arts Celebrates WFSK 88.1 with Free Admissions for Faculty, Staff and Alumni
  53. Stieglitz Art Collection Returns To Fisk
  54. Dearly Departed
  55. Carl Van Vechten Gallery Grand Re-Opening
  56. UNCF/ Mellon Undergraduate Fellowship Announces Selection of Fisk University Students
  57. Fisk Faculty Selected as Guest Speaker for National Science Foundation Workshop
  58. 87th Annual Spring Arts Festival
  59. Student Government Association Hosts Baltimore City State Attorney
  60. The Fisk Jubilee SIngers ® Recieve Feature Story in the Boston Globe and Recognition From Berklee College of Music
  61. Diane Nash ’61 to Receive Honorary Degree Ffrom University of Notre Dame
  62. P. Andrew Patterson ’65 to be Recognized with 2016 Law and Justice Award
  63. Stieglitz Art Collection Returns to Fisk
  64. Fisk Jubilee Singers® set to Headline Concert at Ryman Audiorium
  65. Fisk Women of Prominence Luncheon
  66. Fisk Jubilee Singer finds voice after cancer
  67. Fisk students have long history of fighting injustice
  68. Fisk Jubilee Singers bring gospel tradition to Boston
  69. Fisk Forum
  70. Dearly Departed
  71. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  72. Alpha Beta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Celebrates 90th Birthday with Fisk Beautification Project
  73. Fisk University Celebrates its Sesquicentennial with Various Events Year-Round
  74. Jazz on The Move: The Music and Life of Nat King Cole
  75. WFSK 88.1 Hits Milestone with Educational Programming
  76. Renowned Vocalist Presents Program of African American Spirituals
  77. Monique Odom ’95 Named Deputy Director of Metro Nashville Parks
  78. Around Campus
  79. Kim Whitley Wins Hollywood Game Night
  80. Fisk Women of Prominence Luncheon
  81. Jazzy 88 WFSK - Upcoming Events
  82. Dearly Departed
  83. Jacquelyn Favours '13 Joins Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance
  84. Fisk Professors Win $333,249 Research Award
  85. Elizabeth Taylor ’02 Joins The Tennessee State Board of Education
  86. Kimberly Goods ’93 Named Teacher Of The Year
  87. Fisk Sunday
  88. Fisk Coverage Of Founders’ Day
  89. Women Of Perfection Participate In Annual MLK Day Of Service
  90. Kansas City Public Schools Names Dr. Mark Bedell ’97 New Superintendent
  91. Berklee College of Music Presents the Fisk Jubilee Singers®
  92. Hotel Rooms for Reunion 2016
  93. Dearly Departed
  94. Sesquicentennial Exhibits – John Hope & Aurelia E. Franklin Library
  95. University Open | Monday, January 25th
  96. Classes Cancelled and University | January 22, 2016
  97. Religious Leaders for Fisk Prayer Brunch
  98. 34th Annual Convocation: In Celebration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  99. Holiday Music at Fisk University
  100. University News - October 30, 2015
  101. University News - October 24, 2015
  102. Legacy Day
  103. University News - October 17, 2015
  104. Interim President: wants to improve finances
  105. Interim President
  106. Leadership Transition
  107. Sesquicentennial Calendar
  108. 2015 Jubilee Day Schedule
  109. 2015 Homecoming
  110. 2015 Live Well Benefits Fair
  111. New Student Orientation 2015: Brochure
  112. New Student Orientation 2015: at-a-glance
  113. 30 Great Small Business Degree Programs 2015
  114. Title IX
  115. Fisk Student Selected for Summer Research Experience at National Institute
  116. Fisk Inks Partnership Agreements with Nine Chinese Universities
  117. Trustees Establish Global Studies Fund
  118. Math Club Orientation
  119. Lady Patriot
  120. Nashville Freedom Schools' - Newsletter
  121. The walk for healthcare
  122. Sesquicentennial Art Project artist selected
  123. Volleyball Camp
  124. Awarded Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency
  125. Board of Trustees - New Members
  126. Los Angeles Fisk Alumni Association | Jazz Brunch
  127. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 2
  128. Mandatory Senior Class Commencement Rehearsal 1
  129. President Announces Tuition Freeze & CFO Appointment
  130. Fisk 100 Revisited
  131. A $50,000 Makeover for Fisk Student Areas
  132. Student Leaders for 2015-2016 Academic Year
  133. Fisk University Associate Professor Dr. Lean'tin Bracks Has A Banner Year
  134. Inaugural Valda Montgomery Child Health Symposium Held at ASU
  135. Paine College Names Fisk Alumna Provost and VP of Academic Affairs
  136. Students Challenge State Voter ID Law
  137. 2015 Fisk University Baseball Team
  138. Swing Low Sweet Chariot moment captured on new Exeter Pound note
  139. Alumna Named Executive Director
  140. Alumnus Issues $500,000 Challenge to All Alumni
  141. Registration Opens for 2015 Maymester, Summer, and Fall Terms on March 16th!
  142. 2015 Retool Your School
  143. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.18.15)
  144. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.17.15)
  145. University Closed - Due to Inclement Weather(02.16.15)
  146. Live Demonstration of Mediation
  147. Fisk University News - January 2015
  148. Dr. Natalie Arnett selected for Prestigous Five-Year NSF Career Award
  149. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  150. Advertisement - Vice President for Finance & Administration
  151. Fisk president discusses historic university's current state and future
  152. Happy Holidays from the Fisk University Family
  153. Christmas at Fisk
  154. Mark Crowder wins National ABRCMS Award
  155. 2014 Fisk Homecoming
  156. First Lifetime Achievement Award to Trustee Emerita Leatrice B. McKissack
  158. Fisk University Maintains National Rankings
  159. Increased Enrollment For Third ConsecutiveYear
  160. Jazzy 88 WFSK Begins 2014 Fall Fund Drive with 9th Annual 48-hour Radiothon
  161. American Red Cross | Blood Drive
  162. Jubilee Day
  163. Sesquicentennial Art Commission
  164. New Student Orientation Fall 2014
  165. From a Spark to a Flame:
  166. Dr. Gladys Inez Ford
  167. Van Vechten Art Gallery
  168. New Student Orientation at-a-glance Fall 2014
  169. Fisk University Pre-College Summer Program
  170. Baccalaureate and Commencement 2014
  171. Gables Elementary
  172. Press Release 04/24/14
  173. Press Release 04/10/14
  174. Fisk wins HCASC challenge
  175. Retool Your School
  176. 2014 Scholars Weekend Schedule
  177. Campus Safety Awareness Week
  178. 85th Annual Spring Arts Festival - Schedule
  179. Business Week at Fisk University
  180. 2014 Honors Convocation
  181. 16th Annual Fisk Research Symposium (FRS) - Call for Abstracts
  182. Fisk University and the Los Angeles Alumni Association of Fisk Univeristy
  183. Fisk University has made great strides in past year
  184. Prelaw Seminar at Fisk University
  185. Keynote at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual Convocation
  186. SACSCOC Reaffirms University's Accreditation
  187. Last Night's Art Talk: Alicia Henry and Jaamal Sheats at Fisk
  188. Fisk University Presents Christmas at Fisk
  189. Fisk Alumni Article Featured in the Marin Independent Journal
  190. Stieglitz Collection Unveiled at Fisk's Partner, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
  191. Allstate Quotes for Education
  192. Nashvillians reflect on March on Washington, Martin Luther King Jr
  193. Fisk University Celebrates its Trailblazing Students
  194. Honorary Degree Nominations
  195. Fisk University receives 2013 R&D 100 Award
  196. Fisk AVP Jonathan M. Frost named a finalist for 2013 NELA Awards
  197. Golf Outing with Fisk President H. James Williams
  198. Fisk Alumna Mary K. Bush featured on television program