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Fisk University

Cravath Hall
Established 1866
Type Private, HBCU
Religious affiliation United Church of Christ
President Hazel R. O'Leary
Students 800
Location Nashville, Tennessee,
United States
Campus Urban, 42 acres
Colors Gold and Blue
Nickname Bulldogs

Fisk University is an historically black university founded in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. The world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers started as a group of students who performed to earn enough money to save the school at a critical time of financial shortages. They toured to raise funds to build the first building for the education of freedmen. They succeeded and funded construction of the renowned Jubilee Hall, now a designated National Historic Landmark. The 40-acre campus is a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1930, Fisk was the first African-American institution to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Accreditations for specialized programs quickly followed. In 1952, Fisk was the first predominantly black college to earn a Phi Beta Kappa charter. Organized as the Delta of Tennessee Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society that December, the chapter inducted its first student members on April 4, 1953.

On March 12, 2008, Nashville's Metro Council passed a resolution declaring March 19 Fisk University Day in honor of its record of academic excellence.[1]



University namesake Clinton B. Fisk
A class circa 1900

In 1866 six months after the end of the American Civil War, leaders of the northern American Missionary Association (AMA): John Ogden, Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, field secretary; and Reverend Edward Parmelee Smith founded the Fisk Free Colored School, for education of freedmen. AMA support meant the organization tried to use its sources across the country to aid education for freedmen. Enrollment jumped from 200 to 900 in the first several months of the school, indicating freedmen's strong desire for education, with ages of students ranging from seven to seventy. The school was named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau, who made unused barracks available to the school, as well as establishing the first free schools for white and black children in Tennessee. In addition, he endowed Fisk with a total of $30,000. The American Missionary Association's work was supported by the United Church of Christ, which retains an affiliation with the university.[2] Fisk opened to classes on January 9, 1866.

With Tennessee's passage of legislation to support public education, leaders saw a need for training teachers, and Fisk University was incorporated as a normal school for college training in August 1867. Cravath organized the College Department and the Mozart Society, the first musical organization in Tennessee. Rising enrollment added to the needs of the university. In 1870 Adam Knight Spence became principal of the Fisk Normal School. To raise money for the school's education initiatives, his wife Catherine Mackie Spence traveled throughout the United States to set up mission Sunday schools in support of Fisk students, organizing endowments through the AMA.[3] With a strong interest in religion and the arts, Adam Spence supported the start of a student choir. In 1871 the student choir went on a fund-raising tour in Europe; they were the start of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They raised nearly $50,000, which enabled the construction of Jubilee Hall.[4] The building was designated a National Historic Landmark.

During the 1880s Fisk had an active building program, as well as expanding its curriculum offerings. By the turn of the century, it added black teachers and staff to the university, and a second generation of free blacks entered classes.[4]

In 1947 Fisk heralded its first African-American president with the arrival of Charles Spurgeon Johnson. Johnson was a premier sociologist, a scholar who had been the editor of Opportunity magazine, a noted periodical of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 2002 Fisk University and Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio established an educational partnership to expand opportunities for students, faculty and staff at both institutions: Fisk with the special qualities of a small liberal arts college and Case Western with others as a major research university. "Through the partnership, students have the chance to enroll in dual-degree programs and participate in student exchanges and joint research with a national or international scope. The possibilities that await faculty members at both institutions are equally as stimulating. The collaborative agreement has paved the way for joint research, faculty exchanges, and distance-learning classes facilitated by cutting-edge technology."[5]

Since 2004, Fisk University has been directed by its 14th president, the Honorable Hazel O'Leary, former Secretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton. She is the second woman to serve as president of the university. On June 25, 2008, Fisk announced that it had successfully raised $4 million during the fiscal year ending June 30. It ended nine years of budget deficits and qualified for a Mellon Foundation challenge grant.[citation needed]


Fisk University Historic District
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. Historic District
Location: Roughly bounded by 16th and 18th Aves., Hermosa, Herman and Jefferson Sts.
Nashville, Tennessee
Architectural style(s): Italianate; Queen Anne
Governing body: Fisk University
Added to NRHP: February 9, 1978
NRHP Reference#: 78002579

Jubilee Hall, which was recently restored, is the oldest and most distinctive structure of Victorian architecture on the 40-acre (160,000 m²) Fisk campus.

Music, art, and literature collections

Fisk University is the home of a music literature collection founded by the noted Harlem Renaissance figure Carl Van Vechten.


Alfred Stieglitz Collection

In 1949, painter Georgia O'Keeffe facilitated the exchange of 99 paintings from the estate of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. She made an outright gift of two of her own paintings to the school. These are on permanent display at the University's Carl Van Vechten Galleries.

In 2005, mounting financial difficulties led the University trustees to vote to sell two of the paintings, O'Keeffe's "Radiator Building" and Marsden Hartley's "Painting No. 3". (Together these were estimated to be worth up to 45 million U.S. dollars.) However, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the legal guardians of her estate, sued to stop the sale on the basis that the original bequest did not allow the art to be sold. At the end of 2007 a plan to share the collection with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to earn money was being fought in court by the O'Keeffe Museum.[6]

Science programs

Fisk University has a strong record of academic excellence: it has graduated more African Americans who go on to earn PhDs in the natural sciences than any other institution.[7]

Notable alumni

Name Class year Notability Reference
Lillian Hardin Armstrong 1915 jazz pianist/composer, second wife of Louis Armstrong
Marion Barry former mayor of Washington, D.C.
Joyce Bolden first African-American woman to serve on the Commission for Accreditation of the National Association of Schools of Music
St. Elmo Brady first African American to earn a doctorate in chemistry
Cora Brown first African-American woman elected to a state senate
Hortense Canady past national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated
Alfred O. Coffin first African American to earn a doctorate in zoology
Johnnetta Cole anthropologist, former President of Spelman College and Bennett College
W. E. B. Du Bois 1888 sociologist, scholar, first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard
John Hope Franklin 1935 historian, professor, scholar, author of landmark text From Slavery to Freedom
Nikki Giovanni 1967 poet, author, professor, scholar
Louis George Gregory Hand of the Cause in the Bahá'í Faith
Alcee Hastings U.S. Congressman and former U.S. district court judge
Roland Hayes concert singer
Mandisa Lynn Hundley 2003 Grammy and Dove Award-nominated Christian contemporary singer/songwriter, ninth-place finalist in the fifth season (2006) of American Idol
Robert James former NFL cornerback
Ted Jarrett R&B recording artist and producer
Dr. Charles Jeter 1971 father of Derek Jeter
James Weldon Johnson author, poet and civil rights activist, author of Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, known as the "Negro National Anthem"
Percy Lavon Julian first African-American chemist and second African-American from any field to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences
Matthew Knowles Father and manager of Beyoncé Knowles

David Levering Lewis

John Lewis politician, civil rights activist, former President of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Jimmie Lunceford 1925 famous bandleader in the swing era
E.M. Lysonge 1998 Former SGA President. Currently serves as Senior Director of the Churchill Downs Racetrack
Alma Powell wife of Gen. Colin Powell
Kay George Roberts orchestral conductor
Martha Lynn Sherrod Presiding District Court Judge, first African American to win an at-large election in North Alabama since Reconstruction
Ida B. Wells American civil rights activist and women's suffrage advocate
Kym Whitley actress, comedienne
Yetta Young 1991 First to produce all African-American celebrity cast of the Obie-Award winning play The Vagina Monologues

Notable faculty

Name Department Notability Reference
Robert Hayden U.S. Poet Laureate 1976-1978
Lee Lorch Mathematics mathematician and civil rights activist. Fired in 1955 for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Hon. Hazel O'Leary former U.S. Secretary of Energy
Nikki Giovanni English author, poet, activist
John W. Work III Music Choir Director, Ethnomusicologist and scholar of Afro-American folk music
Aaron Douglas Art painter, illustrator, muralist
Robert E. Park Sociology sociologist of the Chicago School


  1. ^ "RESOLUTION NO. RS2008-188". Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. 
  2. ^ Reavis L. Mitchell, Jr., "Clinton Bowen Fisk", The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002, accessed 3 Mar 2009
  3. ^ Biography: Adam Knight Spence, Spence Family Collection, Fisk University Library, accessed 3 Mar 2009
  4. ^ a b "Fisk University", The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002, accessed 3 Mar 2009
  5. ^ About the Partnership, Case-Western University, accessed 3 Mar 2009
  6. ^ "Search for cash turns into battle over art for Fisk University". CNN. 2007-12-27. 
  7. ^ RESOLUTION NO. RS2008-188: A resolution to recognize and declare Fisk University Day in Nashville, Tennessee on March 19, 2008, Nashville Metropolitan Council, accessed 3 Mar 2009

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