Fisk University
WTN PeepHoles 022.JPG
Cravath Hall
Former names
The Fisk Freed Colored School (1866–1867)
Motto"Her sons and daughters are ever on the altar"[1]
TypePrivate historically black liberal arts college
Established1866; 157 years ago (1866)
Religious affiliation
United Church of Christ (historically related)
Academic affiliations
PresidentFrank L. Sims (Acting)[2]
Academic staff
70 full-time
Students1,053 (fall 2022)[3]

36°10′08″N 86°48′17″W / 36.1688°N 86.8047°W / 36.1688; -86.8047
CampusUrban, 40 acres (16 ha)
ColorsGold and blue
Sporting affiliations
MascotThe Fisk Bulldog

Fisk University is a private historically black liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee. It was founded in 1866 and its 40-acre (16 ha) campus is a historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1930, Fisk became the first historically black institution to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Fisk is the oldest institution for higher education in Nashville.[4][5]


University namesake Clinton B. Fisk
University namesake Clinton B. Fisk
A class c. 1900
A class c. 1900
John Ogden, co-founder of Fisk University
John Ogden, co-founder of Fisk University


Fisk Free Colored School opened on January 9, 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War. It was founded by John Ogden, Erastus Milo Cravath, and Edward Parmelee Smith of the American Missionary Association for the education of freedmen in Nashville.[6] Fisk was one of several schools and colleges that the association helped found across the South to educate freed slaves following the Civil War. The school is named for Clinton B. Fisk, a Union general and assistant commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau of Tennessee. Fisk secured a site to house the school in a former military barracks near Union Station and provided $30,000 for its endowment.[7][8]

The American Missionary Association's work was supported by the United Church of Christ, which retains an affiliation with Fisk.[9] Fisk is the oldest higher education institution in Nashville.[10]

19th century

Enrollment rose to 900 in the first several months following the school's opening, indicating the strong desire for education among local freedmen. Student ages ranged from seven to 70.[7]

During the nation's Reconstruction era, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation to enable free public education, which caused a need to increase teacher training. In 1867 the Fisk Free Colored School was reorganized and incorporated as Fisk University to focus on higher education.[8][7] James Dallas Burrus, John Houston Burrus, Virginia E. Walker, and America W. Robinson were the first students to enroll at the institution. In 1875, the two Burruses and Walker graduated from Fisk and became the first African-American students to graduate from a liberal arts college south of the Mason–Dixon line.[11][12]

In 1870, Adam K. Spence became the school's principal. Spence developed plans to expand and move the school to a larger campus in north Nashville on a site that had been Fort Gillem, a Union army base.[13][14] To raise money for the school's 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 American Missionary Association.[15] With a strong interest in religion and the arts, Adam Spence supported the founding of a student choir; they were the start of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

With the school facing financial distress, the choir went on tour to raise funds in 1871, led by professor and university treasurer George L. White.[7][16] They toured the U.S. and Europe and became a sensation, singing before Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Queen Victoria; popularizing spirituals written by Wallace Willis such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot"; and changing racial stereotypes.[17][18][16] Their tour raised nearly $50,000 and funded construction of Jubilee Hall. (In W.E.B. Du Bois' book entitled "The Souls of Black Folk", this number is quoted at $150,000). It was the first building built for the education of freedmen in the South and is now a National Historic Landmark.[19]

Fisk co-founder Cravath returned in 1875 and became the institution's first president.[20] He oversaw an active construction program and expansion of the school's curriculum offerings to include liberal arts, theology, and teacher training. By the turn of the 20th century, it had strengthened its reputation, built several campus buildings, added African-American teachers and staff, and enrolled a second generation of students.[19][20]

20th century

James Griswold Merrill served as acting president of Fisk from 1899 to 1901, then continued as the institution's president from 1901 to 1908.[21] Fisk University's dedication to liberal arts education at the turn of the century distinguished it from many other black colleges and universities that emphasized vocational training.[22] The school established a department of social science in 1910, founded and directed by George E. Haynes. It was the first social work training center for African-American graduate students and a model for those established at other institutions.[23][24] The school was criticized by some at the time for fostering an elitist reputation.[25]

From 1915 to 1925, Fayette Avery McKenzie was president of Fisk. McKenzie's tenure, before and after World War I, was during a turbulent period in American history. In spite of many challenges, McKenzie developed Fisk as the premier all-Black college or university in the United States, secured Fisk's academic recognition as a standard college by the Carnegie Foundation, Columbia University and the University of Chicago, raised a $1 million endowment fund to ensure quality faculty, and laid a foundation for Fisk's accreditation and future success.[26] McKenzie was eventually forced to resign when his strict policies on dress code, extracurricular activities, and other aspects of student life led to student protests in 1924 and 1925.

Thomas Elsa Jones became the institution's fourth president in 1925. He sought to diversify Fisk's faculty and further build the school's reputation.[27] In 1930, Fisk became the first historically black college to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It was also the first such institution approved by the Association of American Universities in 1933. Accreditations for specialized programs soon followed.

In 1946, Charles S. Johnson became Fisk's sixth president and first African-American president.[20] Johnson was a premier sociologist, a scholar who had also been the editor of Opportunity magazine, a noted periodical of the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson expanded the school's Institute of Race Relations, which was established in 1942. The institute conducted research and fostered discussion about racial disparity in the U.S. and would later help develop strategies for desegregation in schools, employment, and the military.[27][28][29][22] In 1949, Fisk received the Stieglitz Collection of modern art from photographer and arts patron Alfred Stieglitz.

In 1952, Fisk was the first predominantly black college to earn a Phi Beta Kappa charter.[30] 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.

In 1960, Fisk students joined other black leaders in the Nashville sit-ins, nonviolent protests against segregation at lunch counters in the city during the civil rights movement.[31] Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the institution in May 1960 in response to civil rights movement in the city.[32] Fisk students John Lewis and Diane Nash were leaders during the protests, which led to Nashville becoming the first major city in the South to desegregate lunch counters.[33] The two became early leaders of the national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

On April 8, 1967, a riot occurred near the Fisk and Tennessee State University campuses after Stokely Carmichael spoke at Vanderbilt University.[34] Although it was viewed as a "race riot", it had classist characteristics.[34] Protestors marched from Fisk to the Nashville courthouse to protest police brutality during the riots.[35]

In 1978 Fisk's campus was recognized as a National Historic Landmark.[8] The campus underwent significant restoration in the 1990s through assistance from a U.S. Congressional Grant.[20]

21st century

From 2004 to 2013, Fisk was directed by its 14th president, Hazel O'Leary, former Secretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton. She was the second woman to serve as president of Fisk. 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.[36][37] However, Fisk still faced significant financial hardship, and said that it may need to close its doors unless its finances improved.[38]

H. James Williams served as president from February 2013 to September 2015. Williams had been dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, and previously an accounting professor at Georgetown University, Florida A&M, and Texas Southern University.[39][40][41] Williams was succeeded by interim president Frank Sims.[42] In March 2017 the Fisk board of trustees announced that Kevin Rome would be Fisk university's seventeenth president.[43]

In June 2017, a service in memory of 1892 lynching victim Ephraim Grizzard was held in the Fisk Memorial Chapel. A plaque memorializing Grizzard and two other lynching victims—his brother Henry and Samuel Smith—was installed at St. Anselm's Episcopal church in Nashville.[44]

In 2018 the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed the institution on probation. The accreditor cited failings related to financial responsibility, control of research funds, and federal and state responsibility.[45] Fisk announced a fundraising record and increased enrollment the following year.[46] In 2020, Fisk was taken off probation and maintained its accreditation.[47]


Fisk University Historic District
LocationRoughly bounded by 16th and 18th Aves., Hermosa, Herman and Jefferson Sts.
Nashville, Tennessee
Architectural styleItalianate; Queen Anne
NRHP reference No.78002579
Added to NRHPFebruary 9, 1978

Fisk's 40-acre campus was dedicated in 1876. It sits on a small hill approximately two miles northwest of downtown that was previously Fort Gillem, a Union fort during the Civil War.[48] The campus lies on Jefferson Street, a historic center of Nashville's African-American community.

The Fisk University Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Notable campus buildings that contribute to the historic district include:

Additional campus buildings listed on the register include Little Theater, Harris Music Building, numerous residential structures, and a limestone wall built around 1873.[53]

In the 1930s, Fisk hired the Olmsted Brothers firm to lead a master design of its campus at this time, resulting in the Beaux-Arts landscape.[58][59]

Music, art, and literature collections

Jubilee Hall

Library collections

Fisk is the home of a music literature collection founded by the noted Harlem Renaissance figure Carl Van Vechten, for whom the campus museum is named.[61] It also holds a substantial collection of materials associated with Charles W. Chestnutt.[62]

Aaron Douglas murals

Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas was commissioned to paint murals for the new campus library, Cravath Hall, in 1930. Douglas described them a "panorama of the development of Black people in this hemisphere, in the new world." Douglas returned to Fisk in 1939 to teach and later served as chair of the art department. The murals were restored in 2003.[63][64]

Alfred Stieglitz collection

In 1949, Georgia O'Keeffe, wife and executrix of her late husband's estate, in accordance with the terms of his will, donated to Fisk a number of paintings that had belonged to her husband, the photographer and art patron Alfred Stieglitz. The collection consists of 101 works by important artists, including European modernists Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera, as well as American artists Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and Charles Demuth and works by O'Keeffe.[65]

In 2005, mounting financial difficulties and deteriorating conditions in the gallery led the trustees to vote to sell two of the paintings, O'Keeffe's "Radiator Building" and Hartley's "Painting No. 3," together estimated to be worth up to $45 million U.S. The sale was challenged by the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, the legal guardians of her estate. This challenge failed. A joint agreement was established between Fisk University and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.[66][67][68][69] The two museums now share the works' presentation and display rights of the Stieglitz collection; ownership remains with Fisk University, in accord with the terms of Stieglitz's estate. Presentation and display rights rotate between Fisk University and Crystal Bridges Museum every two years. In 2016, as part of the institution's sesquicentennial celebration, the collection was displayed at the newly renovated Carl Van Vechten Gallery.[65]

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.[70]

Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program

Started in 2004,[71] the Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge program helps underrepresented groups gain access to PhD programs in STEM fields. The partnership between a small, historically black college and a major research university aims to diversify doctoral study.[72] The program, which has received money from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship,[73] provides a scholarship for a master's degree at Fisk University and close mentorship for students who go on to a PhD[71] Since 2004, 21 students in the program have completed a PhD, with another 56 currently pursuing graduate study.[71] The program has a success rate far higher than the national average for completion of PhD programs, which is about 50%.[74]


Academic rankings
Liberal arts colleges
U.S. News & World Report[75]171–221
Washington Monthly[76]199


The Fisk athletic teams are called the Bulldogs. The institution is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA),[81] primarily competing in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC) since the 2021–22 academic year; which they were a member on a previous stint from 2010–11 to 2013–14.[82] The Bulldogs previously competed as an NAIA Independent within the Association of Independent Institutions (AII) from 2014–15 to 2020–21 (which they were a member on a previous stint from 2008–09 to 2009–10); in the defunct Great South Athletic Conference (GSAC) of the NCAA Division III ranks from 1999–2000 to 2005–06; in the D-III Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) from 1983–84 to 1993–94; and in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) from 1913–14 to 1982–83, which is currently a NCAA Division II athletic conference.

Fisk competes in 14 intercollegiate varsity sports: Men's sports include basketball, cross country, golf, soccer and track and field (indoor and outdoor); while women's sports include basketball, cross country, golf, gymnastics, tennis, track and field (indoor and outdoor) and volleyball. Fisk is the first HBCU to add a competitive women's gymnastics team.[3] Club sports include cheerleading and dance.

Notable alumni

Name Class year Notability Reference(s)
Lil Hardin Armstrong 1915 jazz pianist/composer, second wife of Louis Armstrong
Constance Baker Motley 1941–1942 first African-American woman elected to the New York State Senate
Marion Barry 1960 former mayor of Washington, D.C.
Mary Frances Berry former Chair, United States Commission on Civil Rights; former Chancellor University of Colorado at Boulder
John Betsch 1967 jazz percussionist
Otis Boykin 1942 inventor, control device for the heart pacemaker
St. Elmo Brady first African American to earn a doctorate in Chemistry
Virginia E. Walker Broughton 1875, 1878 author and Baptist missionary [83][84][85]
Cora Brown first African-American woman elected to a state senate
James Dallas Burrus 1875 educator
John Houston Burrus 1875 educator
J.H. Burrus.png
Henry Alvin Cameron 1896 educator, decorated World War I veteran
Elizabeth Hortense (Golden) Canady past national president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority
Alfred O. Coffin first African American to earn a doctorate in zoology
Malia Cohen 2001 San Francisco District 10 Supervisor 2010 – Present
Johnnetta B. Cole anthropologist, former President of Spelman College and Bennett College
Neal Craig 1971 NFL Cornerback for Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, and Cleveland Browns
Minnie Lee Crosthwaite community organizer, women's activist, and social worker
Minnie Lou Crosthwaite teacher, college administrator, activist
Arthur Cunningham 1951 musical composer, studied at Juilliard and Columbia University
William L. Dawson (politician) 1909 U.S. Congressman (1943–1970)
William L. Dawson.jpg
Charles Diggs United States House of Representatives Michigan (1955–1980)
Charles C. Diggs.jpg
Mahala Ashley Dickerson 1935 first black female attorney in the state of Alabama and first black president of the National Association of Women Lawyers
Rel Dowdell 1993 acclaimed filmmaker
W. E. B. Du Bois 1888 sociologist, scholar, first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard
WEB DuBois 1918.jpg
James J. Durham 1880, 1885 Founder of Morris College
Althea Brown Edmiston 1901 Presbyterian missionary in Belgian Congo
Venida Evans 1969 actress, best known for IKEA commercials
Etta Zuber Falconer 1953 first African-American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics; former Chair, mathematics department at Spelman College
John Hope Franklin 1935 historian, professor, scholar, author of landmark text From Slavery to Freedom
John Hope Franklin.png
Victor O. Frazer United States House of Representatives (1995–1997)
Alonzo Fulgham former acting chief and operating officer of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
Nikki Giovanni 1967 poet, author, professor, scholar
Nikki Giovanni speaking at Emory University 2008.jpg
Louis George Gregory posthumously, a Hand of the Cause in Bahá'í Faith
Eliza Ann Grier 1891 first African-American female physician in Georgia
Eliza Ann Grier.jpg
Alcee Hastings U.S. Congressman and former U.S. district court judge
Roland Hayes concert singer
Perry Wilbon Howard Assistant U.S. Attorney General under President Herbert Hoover
Elmer Imes 1903 renowned physicist and second African-American to earn a PhD in Physics
Esther Cooper Jackson 1940 Founding editor of Freedomways Journal
Lena Terrell Jackson 1885 educator in Nashville for over 50 years
Leonard Jackson 1952 Actor, Five on the Black Hand Side; The Color Purple
Robert James former NFL all pro cornerback
Judith Jamison pioneering dancer and choreographer; former artistic Director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Ben Jobe 1956 legendary basketball coach, Southern University
Joyce Johnson 1953 Organist and Professor Emerita of music at Spelman College in Atlanta
Lewis Wade Jones 1931 sociologist; Julius Rosenwald Foundation Fellow at Columbia University
Ella Mae Johnson 1921 at age 105 years old, Ella Mae Johnson traveled to Washington, DC to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama
Mame Stewart Josenberger 1888 businesswoman and clubwoman in Arkansas
Anne Gamble Kennedy 1941 Pianist, professor, and piano accompanist for the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Matthew Kennedy 1947 Pianist, professor, and former director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Mathew Knowles 1974 father and former manager of Beyoncé, founder and owner of Music World Entertainment, and adjunct professor at Texas Southern University
Dr. John Angelo Lester 1895 Professor Emeritus of Physiology, Meharry Medical College
Nella Larsen 1908 novelist, Harlem Renaissance era
Julius Lester 1960 author of children's books and former professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
David Levering Lewis 1956 two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner
John Lewis 1967 Congressman, civil rights activist, former President of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
John lewis official biopic.jpg
Hettie Simmons Love 1943 first African-American to earn an MBA at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania
Jimmie Lunceford 1925 famous bandleader in the swing era
Aubrey Lyles 1903 vaudeville performer
Mandisa 2001 Grammy Award-winning and Dove Award-nominated Christian contemporary singer/songwriter, ninth-place finalist in the fifth season (2006) of American Idol
Ariana Austin Makonnen philanthropist and member of the Ethiopian Imperial Family
Patti J. Malone 1880 Fisk Jubilee Singer
Louis E. Martin 1933 Godfather of Black Politics
Fatima Massaquoi 1936 pioneering Liberian educator [86]
Jedidah Isler 2007 Isler became the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in Astrophysics from Yale University in 2014 [87]
Wade H. McCree 1941 second African-American United States Solicitor General; Justice, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
Samuel A. McElwee 1883 State Senator during the Reconstruction Era and the first African American elected three times to the Tennessee General Assembly
Robert McFerrin first African American male to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and father of Bobby McFerrin
Leslie Meek 1987 Administrative Law Judge, wife of Congressman Kendrick Meek
Theo Mitchell 1960 Senator, South Carolina General Assembly
Undine Smith Moore first Fisk graduate to receive a scholarship to Juilliard, Pulitzer Prize Nominee
Diane Nash founding member of SNCC
Rachel B. Noel politician; first African-American to serve on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education
Hon. Hazel O'Leary former U.S. Secretary of Energy
Hazel O
J.O. Patterson, Jr. 1958 first African American to occupy the office of Mayor of Memphis. Tennessee State Representative, State Senator, Memphis Councilman, Jurisdictional Bishop in the Church of God in Christ
Helen Phillips 1928 first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Annette Lewis Phinazee 1939 first black woman to earn a doctorate in library sciences from Columbia University
Alma Powell wife of Gen. Colin Powell
Louis W. Roberts 1913 microwave physicist, chief of the Microwave Laboratory at NASA's Electronics Research Center and director of the United States Department of Transportation's John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center [88]
Cecelia Cabaniss Saunders 1903 director of Harlem YWCA, 1914-1947
Lorenzo Dow Turner 1910 linguist and Chair, African Studies at Roosevelt University
A. Maceo Walker 1930 businessman, Universal Life Insurance, Tri-State Bank
Ron Walters 1963 scholar of African-American politics, Chair, Afro-American Studies Brandeis University
Margaret Murray Washington 1890 Lady Principal of Tuskegee Institute and third wife of Booker T. Washington
Teresa N. Washington 1993 academic, author, activist
Ida B. Wells American civil rights activist and women's suffrage advocate
Ida B. Wells Barnett.jpg
Charles H. Wesley 1911 President of Wilberforce University from 1942 to 1947, and President of Central State College from 1947–1965; third African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard
Kym Whitley actress, comedian
Frederica Wilson 1963 U.S. Representative for Florida's 17th congressional district
Fredrica Wilson 112th Congress Portrait.jpg
Tom Wilson (producer) 1953 music producer, best known for his work with Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa
Frank Yerby 1938 first African-American to publish a best-selling novel

Notable faculty

Name Department Notability Reference
Camille Akeju Art Art historian and museum administrator [89]
Ebenezer Ako-Adjei African studies Ghanaian politician and founding member of the United Gold Coast Convention
Arna Bontemps Librarian Head librarian and Harlem Renaissance poet [90]
Miriam Eliza Carey Librarian teacher
Minnie Lou Crosthwaite teacher, college administrator, activist
Aaron Douglas Art Harlem Renaissance painter, illustrator, and muralist [91]
Robert Hayden United States Poet Laureate (1976–1978) [92]
Charles Spurgeon Johnson President, Research First African-American president of Fisk University [93]
James Weldon Johnson Literature Author, poet, and civil rights activist; wrote the poem on which the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" is based (also known as the Black national anthem) [94]
Thomas Elsa Jones President Fifth president of Fisk University [95]
Percy Lavon Julian Chemistry Chemist and second African-American member of the National Academy of Sciences [96]
Anne Gamble Kennedy Music Concert pianist, piano professor, and accompanist for the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Matthew Kennedy Music Concert pianist, piano professor, and director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1957–1986 intermittently) [97]
John Oliver Killens Writer in Residence Two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee [98]
Lee Lorch Mathematics Mathematician and civil rights activist. Fired in 1955 for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. [99]
Hazel R. O'Leary President First woman and first African-American U.S. Secretary of Energy; fourteenth president of Fisk University [100]
Helen Clarissa Morgan Latin First woman to be appointed professor of Latin (1869–1907) at a coeducational college [101]
Robert E. Park Sociology Sociologist of the Chicago School [102]
John W. Work III Music Choir director, ethnomusicologist, and scholar of Afro-American folk music [103]


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