The Fisk University website states that in 1865, barely six months after the end of the Civil War and just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, three men — John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith — established the Fisk School in Nashville.
The school was named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau, who provided the new institution with facilities in former Union Army barracks near the present site of Nashville’s Union Station. In these facilities Fisk convened its first classes on January 9, 1866. The first students ranged in age from seven to seventy, but shared common experiences of slavery and poverty — and an extraordinary thirst for learning.
The website then continues to by proclaiming that from its earliest days, Fisk has played a leadership role in the education of African Americans. Fisk faculty and alumni have been among America’s intellectual, artistic, and civic leaders in every generation since the University’s beginnings. Among them have been such figures as:
- W.E.B. Du Bois (Fisk class of 1888), the great social critic and co-founder of the NAACP
- Booker T. Washington, the great educator who was Du Bois’ famous philosophical adversary as well as the founder of Tuskegee University, served on Fisk’s Board of Trustees, married a Fisk alumna, and sent his children to Fisk
- Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the crusading journalist, attended Fisk
- Charles Spurgeon Johnson, Fisk’s first black president, helped to conceive the modern science of sociology
- The distinguished artist Aaron Douglas served on the Fisk faculty for many years, and his murals decorate the walls of the University’s Erastus Milo Cravath Hall
- Arna Bontemps, Sterling A. Brown, Robert Hayden, and James Weldon Johnson were among several Fisk faculty members who became major figures in American literature
- The acclaimed composer-musicologists John W. Work Sr., John W. Work, Jr., and John W. Work, III were Fisk alumni and members of the faculty
- Saint Elmo Brady, one of the first African Americans to achieve eminence in chemistry, was for many years on the Fisk faculty
- Elmer Samuel Imes, a Fisk alumnus (class of 1903) whose work provided an early verification of quantum theory. His was one of the earliest applications of high resolution infrared spectroscopy and provided the first detailed spectra of molecules, which led to the study of molecular structure through infrared spectroscopy: he chaired the Fisk Physics Department until his death in 1941.
Probably no single institution has played so central a role as Fisk in the shaping of black learning and culture in America. The Fisk tradition of leadership and excellence continued throughout the 20th century and is being carried on today. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was among the early participants in Charles S. Johnson’s famous Race Relations Institute at Fisk. John Hope Franklin, the most eminent historian of the African-American experience, is a Fisk alumnus. Timothy B. Donaldson, Ambassador of the Bahamas to the United States and the Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States is a Fisk alumnus.
Nikki Giovanni, the award-winning contemporary poet, is a Fisk graduate as are the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and professor, David Levering Lewis, and civil right activist and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA).
Also among Fisk’s many distinguished alumni are:
- Johnetta Betsch Cole, Ph.D., former president of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women
- Dennis D. Deveaux, director of finance for Toyota’s North American Material Handling
- Rel Dowdell, acclaimed filmmaker and producer
- Judith Jamison, acclaimed dancer, choreographer and Artistic Director of the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater
- Diane Nash, leader of the Nashville Civil Rights Movement
- The Honorable Hazel R. O’Leary, J.D., seventh U.S Secretary of Energy and past president of Fisk University
- Alma Powell, author and co-founder of America’s Promise Alliance (7)
- Carolyn Reid-Wallace, Ph.D., scholar and author, former Assistant Secretary of U.S. Department of Education, and former president of Fisk University
- Niara Sudarkasa, Ph.D., former and only female president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania
- Kym Whitley, actor and comedienne