Fisk University

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Fisk University

Fisk University is a private, coeducational, independent liberal arts institution in Nashville, Tennessee. It was founded in October 1865 by Erastus Milo Cravath, field secretary for the American Missionary Association (AMA); John Ogden, superintendent of education, Freedmen's Bureau, Tennessee; and the Rev. Edward P. Smith, district secretary, Middle West Department, AMA, at Cincinnati. Cravath and Smith had been sent to Nashville by the AMA to establish an elementary school for freedmen in the area. The two men joined forces with Ogden, who was named principal of the Fisk School, or the Fisk Free Colored School, when it opened on January 1, 1866, in former Union hospital barracks. The buildings and land had been purchased with much financial and moral support from the assistant commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau for Tennessee and Kentucky, Gen. Clinton Bowen Fisk, for whom the school was named. The American Missionary Association and the Freedmen's Bureau also helped to fund the school.

Although at first it functioned mainly as an elementary and normal school, Fisk was incorporated as Fisk University on August 22, 1867, following the founders' desires for a "first-class college" to educate black teachers. The college curriculum was organized by Adam K. Spence, a Scottish-born professor of foreign languages who left the University of Michigan in 1870 to replace Ogden as principal. Fisk graduated its first four college students in 1875, awarding them the B.A. degree for successfully completing courses in such liberal arts subjects as classical and foreign languages, mathematics, natural sciences, philosophy, history, and political science. In keeping with Fisk's religious orientation, weekly Bible classes were also required.

Fisk's income derived primarily from sporadic donations, as well as what could be raised from the modest tuition rates. Under Spence's leadership it experienced dire financial problems and often had to delay salary payments to its hardworking and dedicated teaching staff, which was originally composed primarily of white missionaries sent by the AMA. The buildings were deteriorating and in need of repair. George L. White, Fisk's treasurer and self-taught music instructor, set out on October 6, 1871, with a group of nine of his best students for a fund-raising singing tour of the North and East. White named the group the Jubilee Singers. The Jubilee Singers introduced "slave songs" or spirituals to audiences and returned the following year with $20,000 to purchase a forty-acre campus site. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held July 1, 1873, for the erection of Jubilee Hall, now a historic landmark. The Singers remain a Fisk tradition.

In 1875, Erastus Milo Cravath became the first president of Fisk University when the position of principal was eliminated and the AMA gave up direction of the institution, transferring titles and buildings to the Fisk trustees. Spence continued at Fisk as professor of Greek until 1900. He joined other members of Fisk's white faculty in enrolling his own child at the increasingly reputable university.

Under Cravath's presidency Fisk's reputation grew, and as early as 1875 black professors joined the staff. Among the students who came from the North to study at Fisk was W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the university's most famous alumni, who received his B.A. in 1888. When Cravath died in 1900, Fisk had graduated more than four hundred students who spread Fisk's fame across the United States in their careers as lawyers, professors, businessmen, ministers, and editors.

During the presidency of James G. Merrill (19001908), Fisk added a summer school for black teachers who wanted to improve their training, as well as many new science courses. When Merrill resigned, Fisk was again experiencing money troubles, since philanthropies at that time were more interested in investing in vocational and industrial schools such as the Tuskegee Institute. Many educators followed the line of reasoning that favored a "practical" education for blackstraining to enter the workforce. But Fisk remained staunchly in favor of offering the best liberal arts education it could to blacks in order to produce leaders for the black community.

Under the administration of George A. Gates, president from 1909 to 1912, Fisk established the social science department for which it would become well known. It also began to receive considerable donations from such philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenwald, and John D. Rockefeller. These donations were largely results of tireless campaigning on behalf of the university by Booker T. Washington, whose wife and son were alumni of Fisk.

The presidency of Fayette Avery McKenzie, who took office after Gates's untimely death, brought with it an expansion of the curriculum and raising of standards, as well as a $2 million endowment campaign. By July 19, 1924, McKenzie was successful in securing half of the endowment. Although the school showed growth, McKenzie's dictatorial administration and strict student discipline led in 1924 and 1925 to one of the first student rebellions on a black college campus. Du Bois fueled the fire of the revolt by speaking out to other alumni against McKenzie. McKenzie was especially resented for his ingratiating behavior toward prominent white citizens of Nashville and his insistence on unobtrusive, passive behavior from the black students even in the face of antiblack violence. McKenzie resigned on April 16, 1925.

Thomas Elsa Jones, a Quaker missionary, became the last white president in 1926. His years are viewed as one of the most productive periods in Fisk history. He eradicated the stricter regulations imposed on students until then. The $2 million endowment was attained. Black faculty increased to more than one half, and the first black dean, Ambrose Caliver, was named when Jones took office. Jones placed emphasis on increasing graduate studies at the university and attracting research-oriented professors. One of these professors was Charles Spurgeon Johnson, who became the head of the department of social science in 1928 and established the Institute of Race Relations at Fisk in 1944, drawing white and black leaders to campus annually for intensive three-week conferences. In 1947 Johnson became Fisk's first black president, replacing Jones, who had resigned to become president of his alma mater, Earlham College. Johnson's administration ended abruptly in 1956 when he died of a heart attack.

During these formative years Fisk garnered a number of historical firsts among black colleges and universities. It was the first black college to gain full accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (1930); to be on the approved list of the Association of American Universities (1933); to establish a university archive (1948); to be approved by the American Association of University Women (1951); to be granted a chapter of the honorary society Phi Beta Kappa (1952); and to be accredited for membership in the National Association of Schools of Music (1954).

The 1960s brought an expansion in educational programs and buildings. A centennial celebration was held in 1966, and James Raymond Lawson, an alumnus and scientist, was inaugurated as president, replacing Stephen Junius Wright, Jr., who had been named president after Johnson's death. Enrollment reached 1,559 in 1972, the largest in the university's history. In 1977 the Department of the Interior designated the campus as a historical site in the National Register of Historical Places by the National Parks Service.

Ironically, in the early 1970s school desegregation had an adverse effect on Fisk's finances, for government funding was cut back and competition for students increased as formerly segregated schools lured potential black applicants. In July 1975 Fisk's financial situation reached a crisis point as 11 percent of full-time faculty and forty staff members were laid off. Those remaining took a 20 percent salary abatement.

With the resignation of Lawson that same year, the school was without a president until 1977, when Walter Jewell Leonard, an attorney, was selected. Inheriting serious financial woes, Leonard's administration was also a target of faculty and student disgruntlement. Student enrollment dropped and a number of faculty resigned.

When a cold homecoming day on November 12, 1983, found dormitories without heat, it became public that the Nashville Gas Company had discontinued service in April because of an overdue bill of $157,000. The financial crisis worsened as the Nashville Electric Service threatened to cut off the university's electricity if $140,000 of their bill was not paid immediately. At the same time the Internal Revenue Service was threatening to put a lien on Fisk's property, since the university owed $500,000 in back payroll taxes. When Leonard suddenly resigned on November 23, 1983, the school, which had been $2.2 million in debt at his inauguration, owed some $2.8 million.

The crisis alarmed the nation, and leaders rallied to "save Fisk." President Ronald Reagan donated $1,000, and the U.S. Secretary of Education, Terrel H. Bell, created a task force from the public and private sectors to review the financial difficulties facing Fisk University. As in 1871 Fisk once again withstood the tide of financial disaster, receiving scores of donations from alumni and friends. Henry Ponder, an economist, took the reins of the beleaguered institution in July 1984 as the tenth president, and set out to pare back to a bare-bones operation.

Despite financial hardships, the university has continued to maintain its position as a flagship among historical black colleges and universities with a tradition of academic excellence. Fisk's $10 million Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern Art, presented to the university in 1949 by Georgia O'Keeffe, widow of Stieglitz, as well as its library of valuable research collections and rare books, attracts visitors

from all over the world. Fisk alumni, among some of the most distinguished in the nation, include Du Bois, historian Charles H. Wesley, Congressman William Levi Dawson, and novelist Frank Yerby. Enrollment is in excess of eight hundred students.

In 2004 former U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary was named president of the university, the fifth president in less than ten years.

See also Dillard University; Fisk Jubilee Singers; Howard University; Lincoln University; Morehouse College; Spelman College; Tuskegee University


Collins, L. M. One Hundred Years of Fisk University Presidents. Nashville, Tenn.: Fisk University Press, 1989.

Richardson, Joe M. A History of Fisk University, 18651946. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980.

ann allen shockley (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005