By: Tori Kleinpeter
Once the Civil War ended, the United States had to put itself back together after the destruction of the war. This period is called “Reconstruction.” During this time, there were lots of changes to the way people lived. The biggest one was the newly freed population of African Americans. Tennessee now had over 275,000 free people that had been enslaved just a few years before.
Before the Civil War, it was illegal in many states to teach enslaved individuals to read or write. Basic education was denied to almost all African Americans. When slavery was abolished in 1865, over 3 million enslaved men, women, and children in American were free at last. Most of them could not read. This made it difficult for them to get jobs and support themselves as free citizens.
Union soldier reading the Emancipation Proclamation to a group of enslaved individuals, 1864, Tennessee State Museum Collection, 79.59
The Federal Government and abolitionist groups made tried to help newly freed African Americans, known as freedmen. Agencies like the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association made it their goal to provide free education to newly freed African Americans. These groups established schools all over the country. Fisk University in Nashville started as one of these schools.
In 1865, three men met to discuss the opening of a school in Nashville. John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus M. Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith were leaders from both the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association. They all agreed that Nashville would make a great location for a school. After purchasing land in downtown Nashville, they started Fisk Free Colored School in January of 1866.
The school was named after General Clinton B. Fisk. Fisk was a Union General who pushed for African American civil rights. He also helped secure the school’s site and facilities which had been used as Union Army barracks. When classes began, hundreds of formerly enslaved Tennesseans flocked to Nashville to enroll. Ages of the students ranged from seven to seventy years. By May of that year, over nine hundred students had enrolled. It was clear that local African Americans had a hunger for knowledge.
Engraving depicting the barrack-type buildings of Fisk University, 1868, Tennessee State Library and Archives
After several years of successfully educating African Americans, the school decided to shift its mission from primary education to higher education. In 1867, Fisk Free Colored School became Fisk University. By 1871, the school had a problem. The old wooden barracks were beginning to deteriorate. The University desperately needed to rebuild and expand the campus as more and more students enrolled. The problem was they didn’t have enough money to do so.
Thankfully, the Fisk Jubilee Singers came to the rescue. The singing group went on a fundraising tour throughout the United States and Europe. Their concerts were very popular, and the tour was a great success. The group was able to raise enough money to begin construction on a brand-new building for the school on a new plot of land in North Nashville.
Named in honor of the singers, Jubilee Hall began construction in 1873 and was completed in 1876. The building was six stories high and large enough to house the entire university. Thanks to the Jubilee Singers, the school would continue to thrive for many years.
Photo of Jubilee Hall built from 1873-1876, Tennessee State Museum Collection, 10.138
Over the next several decades, Fisk University’s reputation spread more and more. The campus grew. New subjects were added. Former students came back to teach at the school. All these upgrades and achievements provided students and staff members with a growing sense of pride for their school.
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, Fisk students were eager to join the fight against segregation. Many of them trained in nonviolent protest workshops. They were even part of the famous Nashville sit-in demonstrations. These sit-ins eventually led to the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters. Without the bravery and devotion of the students at Fisk, this may not have been possible.
Today, Fisk University continues its mission to provide a quality education for all racial backgrounds. Some of its notable graduates include Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Diane Nash, and John Lewis. It remains one of the oldest historically Black colleges in the United States.
Tori Kleinpeter is an educator at the Tennessee State Museum.
Reconstruction – 1) to build back. 2) the period of time after the Civil War.
Abolitionist - 1) a person who wants to get rid of slavery. 2) a person who favors the ending of a practice or institution, especially slavery.
Freedmen – the term used to describe enslaved workers freed after the Civil War.
Barracks - A building or group of buildings used usually during wars for soldiers to sleep in.
Deteriorate – To become progressively worse in quality or value.
Segregation - 1) To set apart or divide groups of people. Ex: segregating people based on the color of their skin. 2) To separate into groups. In this example, to separate people based on the color of their skin.
Why do you think the period after the Civil War known as Reconstruction?
Why do you think so many people were quick to enroll in the school early on?
How did the school raise enough money to build Jubilee Hall?
What where some ways Fisk students fight against racial segregation?
What are some ways that having an education can make life easier for you today?
To learn more about the Fisk Jubilee Singers, check out our blog post here: https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/who-are-the-fisk-jubilee-singers?locale=en_us
Tennessee State Standards
5.44 Explain the development and efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau in helping former slaves begin a new life, including Fisk University. (T.C.A. § 49-6-1028)
Mitchell, Reavis L., Jr. “Fisk University.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society. 2017. Accessed December 19, 2022. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/fisk-university/
“Fisk University History,” Fisk University, accessed December 19, 2022, https://www.fisk.edu/about/history/