Fisk University began as Fisk Free Colored School, one of several
schools founded for freedmen during the Union military occupation of Nashville.
In October of 1865, the American Missionary Association, the Western Freedmen's
Aid Commission, and the U. S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned
Lands opened the school to help fulfill the educational needs of freed
slaves. In December of 186S, General Clinton Bowen Fisk, head of the Kentucky-Tennessee
Freedmen's Bureau, secured housing for the school in several old Union
army hospital buildings between Church and Cedar (Charlotte) streets near
Shaftesbury Avenue and the Union army's contraband camp. On January 9,
1866, the school's founders and Governor William G. Brownlow participated
in dedication ceremony for the institution. The principal founders and
organizers included John Ogden and Erastus Cravath and black businessmen
Nelson Walker and Richard Harris. Like Ogden, Walker was a leading member
of the local Republican party.
With the reopening of the Nashville public schools in the fall of 1867,
the institution was chartered as Fisk University on August 22. As a college,
Fisk needed new quarters. In 1871, the surplus Union Fort Gillem was purchased.
A student choir under the leadership of Professor George L. White was organized
(1867) and began touring the nation in 1871 to raise building funds. The
Jubilee Singers raised over $50,000 for the construction of Jubilee Hall
at Salem (Eighteenth Avenue, North) and Jefferson streets. In January of
1876, Fisk University dedicated its new campus. Under its first president,
Erastus Cravath, some 130 of Fisk's students and graduates became teachers
in black schools. The physical plant continued to expand and by the 1890s
Fisk's curriculum had expanded to include liberal arts, theology, teacher
training, and a secondary school.
At the turn of the century, with the arrival of a second generation
of freed blacks, the school bea undergo changes as black expectations began
to rise. Demands were made for more blacks on the faculty and in administration.
In June of 1911, there was a black protest because President George Gates
dismissed six of twelve black teachers for financial reasons. In 1924-25,
a student strike forced President Fayette A. McKenzie to resign under a
cloud of charges of racism and oppression. In 1947, Charles S. Johnson
became the first black to head Fisk University.
During the 1960s, the civil rights movement radicalized the student
body, causing support from white donors to diminish. Facing increasing
financial burdens, Fisk unwisely dipped into its $15 million endowment.
Nineteen eighty-three found the school with a greatly diminished endowment
and serious debts, but also undergirded with determination to carry on.
Presidents and Acting Presidents of Fisk have been: Erastus Milo Cravath
(l875-1900), James Merrill (1901-1908), George Augustus Gates (1909-1915),
Fayette Avery McKenzie (1915-1925), Thomas Elsa Jones (1926-1946), Charles
Spurgeon Johnson (1947-1956), Stephen Junius Wright (1957-1966), James
Raymond Lawson (1967-1975), Rutherford Hamlet Adkins (Acting, 1975-1976),
George W. Gores Jr. (Acting, 1976-1977), Walter J. Leonard (1977-1984),
and Henry Ponder (1984- ).