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Jubilee! A Story of Fisk University’s Splendor 

Jubilee! A Story of Fisk University’s Splendor 

February 23, 2023
Joan Bahner

Located on 40 acres in the city of Nashville, Tennessee, is the majestic Fisk University, home of renowned choral ensemble The Fisk Jubilee Singers. Not only did the group introduce Negro spirituals to the world, but it also was an early pioneer in fundraising with its global efforts to raise money to support the university. 

Fisk was founded on Jan. 9, 1866, as the Fisk Freed Colored School, shortly after the end of the Civil War. The founders were John Ogden, Erastus Milo Cravath and Edward Parmelee Smith – all of the American Missionary Association for the education of freedmen in Nashville. The institution was named after Clinton B. Fisk, a Union general and assistant commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau of Tennessee. 

Almost from the beginning, the university was in financial distress. In 1871, The Fisk Jubilee Singers set sail for Europe on a tour to raise funds for the ailing school. While on the tour, the group sang in a private concert for Queen Victoria. After the concert, the queen named Nashville “Music City” for the esteemed Jubilee Singers (no, it wasn’t named for country music, despite popular belief). They raised $50,000 on tour. Those funds were used to erect Jubilee Hall.

Jubilee Hall, built in 1892, is the oldest permanent building for higher education of Blacks in the United States.

Today, Fisk University is a private, historically Black liberal arts college and an historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fisk is the oldest institution of higher education in Nashville. Its Italianate and Queen Ann architectural style showcases several buildings of note. In the 1930s, Fisk hired the Olmsted Brothers, sons of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, to lead a master design of the Fisk campus that resulted in the Beaux-Art (fine arts) landscape. The following is a list of those buildings, to name a few:

  • The Carl Van Vechten, built in 1888, originally served as the campus gymnasium before it became a prestigious art gallery. It houses the Stieglitz Collection of modern art. The gallery was named for Carl Van Vechten, an American writer and artistic photographer who was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1949, Georgia O’Keeffe, in accordance with the terms of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz’s, wishes, donated to Fisk a number of his paintings. This 101-piece collection includes pieces by Paul Cezanne, Pierre- Augusta Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Diego Rivera, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth and O’Keeffe herself. At one time, it was purported to be the finest art collection south of the Mason Dixon.
  • Carnegie Hall was originally built, in 1908, as a library. This was the first major  building by Moses McKissack III, co-founder of the first African American owned architecture firm in the United States.
  • Cravath Hall, named for the first Fisk president, was completed in 1930. Then, it was an eight-story building, originally used as a library and later as an administration building. It was state of the art, with a conveyor system for delivery of books said to rival any library in the country. Also, it featured a series of murals by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, who later joined the Fisk faculty, depicting a “panorama of the development of Black people in this hemisphere in the new world.”
  • Fisk Memorial Chapel was built in 1892 in a Victorian style and at the time was the largest building for African Americans to gather in the country. In addition to Sunday chapel services, it served as the campus multi-purpose arena.
  • Talley Brady Hall, built in 1931, is the first modern chemistry building at  Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

Fisk University proclaims many “firsts” and unique accomplishments:

  • It is the first building erected for the education of the South’s freedmen and now is a National Historic Landmark.
  • In 1952, Fisk became the first HBCU to gain a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society (Delta of Tennessee).
  • It was the first HBCU to have Mortar Board, a national honor society that recognizes college seniors for their achievements in scholarship, leadership and service. Toward that end, the Gold Key Chapter was installed, making Fisk the first Mortar Board chapter at a predominantly Black college and university.
  • In 1930, Fisk was the first HBCU to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
  • Fisk was the first HBCU to be approved in 1933 by the Association of American Universities.
  • The university has graduated more African Americans who go on to earn PhDs in the natural sciences than any other institution.
  • In the 1960s, Fisk students were an integral part of the Nashville sit-ins, a nonviolent protest against segregation at lunch counters in the city during the Civil Rights Movement, led by the late Honorable John Lewis and Diane Nash. This led to Nashville becoming the first major Southern city to desegregate lunch counters.
  • This academic year of 2022-2023, Fisk has added a competitive gymnastics team. It is the first HBCU to have a gymnastics team.

The following is a partial list of Fisk notable alumni:

  • Constance Baker Motley, the first elected African American woman to the New York State Senate.
  • St. Elmo Brady, first African American to earn a doctorate in chemistry.
  • Mahala Ashley Dickerson, first female African American attorney in the State of Alabama and first Black president of the National Association of Women Lawyers.
  • Alfred O. Coffin, first Black to earn a doctorate in zoology.
  • W.E.B. DuBois, first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University.
  • Jedidah Isler, first African American to earn a PhD in astrophysics from Yale University.
  • John Hope Franklin, historian and author of the landmark text “From Slavery to Freedom”and professor emeritus, Duke University.
  • David Levering Lewis, two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner.
  • Nikki Giovanni, poet, author, professor, scholar.
  • Elmer Imes, renowned physicist and second Black to earn a PhD in physics.
  • Frank Yerby, first African American to publish a best-selling book.

Fisk University is an international treasure in many ways, especially its contribution of The Fisk Jubilee Singers, the choral ensemble that introduced the Negro spiritual to the world. Spirituals are often misnomered as gospel music. The difference between the two is that “the spirituals were 19th-century religious folk songs of the slaves who were seeking personal freedom, and gospel songs are 20th-century sacred songs that were conceived as a way for people to move into economic freedom.”

Fisk University is often thought of as a hidden treasure. After reading this blog, I hope you’ll no longer consider it a hidden treasure … but indeed, a treasure! And a testament to the power of Black philanthropy to make a difference in the world.


Joan Bahner

Joan joins Lighthouse Counsel as a senior consultant. Joan has more than 30 years of experience in strategic planning, policymaking, problem solving, fundraising, special projects and communication. She previously held several leadership positions at Fisk University in Nashville, including executive director of alumni affairs and development, executive director of the general alumni association, dean of student affairs and vice president for institutional advancement. As vice president for institutional advancement at Fisk, Joan raised $3.5 million in annual donations; increased giving by faculty, staff, board and alumni; and built an advancement team after securing approval for capacity building. Joan was selected as President of TARC-Tennessee Advancement Resources Council. She has served on the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) International Board of Trustees and the CASE National Commission on Alumni Relations. She was the chair of the Committee on Opportunity and Equity, as well as chair of CASE District III. She was honored with the CASE District III Distinguished Service Award and the Alumni Achievement Award from Fisk University. Joan has been engaged in her community, with leadership including service on the board of Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee and on the board of Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Fisk University and a master’s in biology at Tennessee State University. Joan’s favorite quote: “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” —Arnold H. Glasow