From the establishment of the first school for free African Americans in 1833, and well beyond the opening of the Fisk School in 1866, circumstances surrounding African-American education in Nashville were volatile. Many teachers were threatened, run out of town, or dealt with in a violent manner. Students frequently confronted violence on their way to and from school. Some African-American schools were burned to the ground or simply closed by local officials.
Following emancipation, those who had previously been denied a formal education now demanded a place where they could learn. They called for not only an education of the mind, but also of body and character. Those who had previously been held in a state of dependence found themselves, following emancipation, having to rely upon their own available means to survive. Only by nurturing the mind, body and character could so many rise above conditions of servitude to a “natural emancipation” (Bullock, p 31). This “natural emancipation” would be possible only through a system of higher education.
The establishment of one educational institution that would contribute significantly to this “natural emancipation” was made possible, in great part, by three men: John Ogden, Erastus M. Cravath and Edward P. Smith. These three Northerners, among others, recognized the need for the creation of a formal education system for African Americans. Though encountering numerous obstacles along the way, Ogden, Cravath and Smith eventually acquired the former Union hospital land within the city of Nashville. This spot included approximately twenty buildings and was situated in a prime location near the African-American community. Through the efforts of these three men, and with the assistance of others, the doors of Fisk School first opened on January 9, 1866.
At the onset, the school’s supporters hoped that Fisk would eventually become not only a normal school that would produce qualified African-American teachers, but also a premier college. In 1867, when Nashville opened free, segregated schools for people of all races in accordance with recently passed legislation, many of Fisk’s elementary students moved to the public education system, thereby bringing Fisk closer to its goals. On August 22, 1867, Fisk University was incorporated, and a normal department was created. By 1869, Fisk was reorganized to include the normal school and college.
When the Union hospital land was acquired, the buildings were still the property of the government. The facilities were obtained only through the assistance of General Clinton B. Fisk. They were subsequently converted into school buildings. Classrooms were transformed from sick wards, and teachers were housed in former officers’ quarters.
Since its inception, Fisk had survived turbulent financial conditions; however, in 1871, the situation became so tenuous the university faced the possibility of having to close its doors. The old hospital buildings used for housing and classrooms were falling apart and leaks were developing in the roofs. In addition to the financial constraints affecting the facilities, the poor conditions were also taking a toll on the faculty. The administration began to worry that many teachers would begin to leave.
At this point, the students stepped in. The Jubilee Singers began to play a vital role in saving Fisk. The first tour of the Jubilee Singers started during the autumn of 1871 and ended in May 1872. The profits were used to pay university debts. In addition, a portion of those funds made possible the purchase of property where the present-day Fisk University campus is located. Those funds also financed the construction of Jubilee Hall. The cornerstone of the magnificently designed building that would become Jubilee Hall was laid in October 1873, and was formally dedicated in January 1876.
Fundraising efforts by the Jubilee Singers led to outside contributions, making possible the construction of other facilities, including Livingston Hall. In addition, contributions by the Jubilee Singers, with the assistance of the American Missionary Association, helped facilitate the construction of the multi-purpose building, Bennett Hall. It was completed in 1891.
Fisk’s doors opened during a time of uncertainty and fear, coupled with hostile attitudes toward African-American schools. Schoolhouses were burned; teachers were threatened or beaten, some of whom were Fisk students teaching for the summer; and students were constantly facing violence. The freedmen’s zeal for an education did not wane despite this hostile atmosphere.
During the same year that the Ku Klux Klan came into existence, the Fisk School opened for enrollment. Two hundred students enrolled in February 1866. By May of that year, the number grew to 900 students. Despite the fact that students were assaulted on their way to and from school on a continuous basis and the teachers were frequently threatened, they confronted the violence with bravery and continued with their educational mission.
In addition to the violence and threats, the teachers made sacrifices when it came to their living conditions and compensation. The housing was inadequate, food unpleasant and the salaries, when paid, were poor. Frustration with living conditions often gave rise to arguments between the teachers. Nonetheless, they felt that the education of former slaves was a necessity.
By the end of the first year, it became evident that the students and teachers would prevail in reaching their goal in the face of hardship. An audit performed merely four months after opening disclosed that over 200 students were literate. Eventually, their efforts had come full circle: Fisk had reached its goal of producing students to further educate the African-American community.
Fisk’s notable alumni range from poets and novelists to politicians and activists. The dedication by students seen when Fisk first opened its doors has continued on through the years. The leadership required to succeed at Fisk helped produce many notable students. To name only a few, W.E. B. Du Bois, civil rights activist and author, graduated from Fisk in 1888, and later furthered his education at Harvard University. Du Bois was the first African-American male awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard. John Hope Franklin, historian and educator, also graduated from Fisk and was awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard. Another notable alumnus is the well-known poet Nikki Giovanni, who graduated from Fisk in 1967 and also attended the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
The dedication and leadership exhibited by the students, along with the success of so many Fisk alumni, is due in part to the commitment by the faculty. In addition to those that helped facilitate the opening of Fisk, many notable faculty members have passed through the school and university halls, including James Weldon Johnson, professor of creative literature; E. Franklin Frazier, sociologist; Robert E. Park, sociologist; and Kenneth E. Boulding, economist.
Both students and faculty helped create Fisk’s success and reputation as a recognizable institution, which drew the attention of many distinguished cultural leaders. This led to the acquisition of the Langston Hughes Collection, which consists of correspondence, writings, articles and photographs of the poet and author himself, in addition to the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Musical Literature donated by Carl Van Vechten. Moreover, Van Vechten, along with Fisk University’s first African-American President, Charles S. Johnson, facilitated a transfer of over 100 works of art by Georgia O’Keeffe to the University.
Despite reoccurring financial difficulties, Fisk has successfully emerged as a preeminent educational institution. The significant contributions that Fisk has made since its birth in 1866 have reached well beyond Tennessee. The Fisk University scrapbook of William Henry Fort, Jr., provides a brief look at the growth of the university during the 1920s as seen in photographs of the campus, buildings and students.
In addition to documents relating to the Ambrose A. Bennett family, there is also material on two allied African American families, the lines of William Henry Fort, Jr. (1911-1974), and William Jennings Hale, Jr. (1914-1989). These two families were associated with higher education in Nashville. Among the items pertaining to the Fort family is the Fisk University scrapbook of William Henry Fort, Jr. This scrapbook consists of nineteen pages of images, among these are photographs of various campus buildings, numerous students and significant figures at Fisk, including a photograph of Langston Hughes and a photograph of past Fisk president, Thomas E. Jones. The Bennett Family Papers contain numerous sermons given by the Reverend Bennett, an African-American minister born in Davidson County, Tennessee. The collection also includes photographs, certificates, clippings, estate papers, land records, obituaries and school records, among other materials. This collection was donated in 1999 to TSLA by the granddaughter of the Reverend Bennett, Dr. Jane Fort (1938- ).
Bennett, Ambrose A. (1884-1957) Family Papers 1918-[1937-1957]-1996, Manuscripts Section, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville, Tennessee.
Bullock, Henry Allen. A History of Negro Education in the South from 1619 to the Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
The Fact Book 2003-2004. Office of Institutional Research, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. https://www.fisk.edu/assets/files/1b/factbook2003v2c.pdf
Fisk University. Notable Names Database. http://www.nndb.com/edu/679/000068475/
History of Fisk. Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. https://www.fisk.edu/about/history
Lovett, Bobby L. The African-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780-1930. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999.
Lovett, Bobby L., ed. From Winter to Winter: The Afro-American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1870-1930. Nashville: Tennessee State University, 1981.
Merrill, James G. “Fisk University.” In From Service to Servitude: Being the Old South Lectures on the History and Work of Southern Institutions for the Education of the Negro, edited by Lawrence A. Cremin. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Mitchell, Reavis. They Loyal Children Make Their Way. Nashville: Fisk University Press, 1995.
Richardson, Joe M. “Fisk University: The First Critical Years.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 29, no. 1 (Spring 1970): 24-41.
Richardson, Joe M. A History of FiskUniversity, 1865-1946. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Robbins, Faye Wellborn. A World-Within-A-World: Black Nashville, 1880-1915. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1981.
Tennessee State Library and Archives
403 Seventh Avenue North, Nashville, TN 37243
© 2016 Tennessee Department of State