Fisk University Embraces 150 Years Of History — But Wants To Move Past Financial Troubles

Dec 20, 2016

Fisk University in Nashville is one of the most storied institutions in the country.

It was founded 150 years ago, just after the Civil War, to educate freed slaves. It graduated prominent black leaders of the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights. Its Jubilee Singers have been nominated for a Grammy.

But as it wraps up its sesquicentennial anniversary, Fisk is still grappling with a dilemma as old as the school itself: how to become financially sustainable. 

Money problems and music are both part of Fisk's legendary origin story. Just five years after the school was founded, Congress decided that it would not renew funding for colleges that educated African Americans after the Civil War.

It was a desperate time, says history professor Reavis Mitchell.

"When the school reached the point of less than a dollar in the treasury, when there was no hope, a student chorus was put together in the fall of 1871," he says.

That student chorus became the Fisk Jubilee Singers. On Oct. 6, 1871, nine African American students in the group set out on their first northern tour.

An advertisement for the Fisk Jubilee Singers in a Boston newspaper in 1887
Credit Wikimedia Commons

"They would present themselves — some the children of slaves, a few enslaved themselves — and the world was truly astonished by these young people from this place called Fisk," Mitchell says.

Their tours became legendary. They performed at the White House for President Grant and in England for Queen Victoria. (She famously instructed her court painter to create a portrait of the singers, which still is displayed on campus.)

The tour worked: The singers raised enough money to save the school. Fisk bought the land it sat on and built one of the campus's oldest buildings, Jubilee Hall.

More: Hear the earliest recordings of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

It's a point of pride even today. At Fisk's 150th anniversary convocation this year, speaker after speaker invoked the original nine Jubilee Singers, thanking them for their dedication. And the modern-day group knows the history by heart.

"It's a feeling you can't describe just to be a Fisk Jubilee Singer," says Lyante Savala, a tenor who graduated this spring, "and understand, 'Wow, this is a powerful, powerful load that I'm carrying.' "

Monetary Strain, Still

But as the legacy of the singers lives on, so does the financial burden they were trying to relieve.

In the '80s, Fisk teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, culminating in $4 million of debt, according to Ebony.

In the mid-2000s, Fisk began an extended legal battle over whether it could sell famous paintings donated by Georgia O'Keeffe. University leaders said publicly they needed the money to avoid financial ruin. 

The case was settled by allowing Fisk to sell half-custody of its collection to Crystal Bridges, a museum in Arkansas, for $30 million. Still, the university was put on probation from 2011 to 2013 by its accrediting agency, in part for its financial oversight.

That's not to say it's always been shaky. Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, wrote her dissertation on what she describes as Fisk's golden years — the 1940s and '50s under university president Charles Johnson.

"That's really the last time that Fisk had real financial success," she says. "They were at the helm of HBCUs and were incredibly well-respected as a small liberal arts institution."

It's not just Fisk that has struggled since: These days, many historically black colleges and universities have tight budgets, in part because of their mission. They enroll more low-income and first-generation students, so they keep tuition lower than other schools do.

To thrive, Gasman says, HBCUs need a few things. For one, they need stable leadership — but Fisk has cycled through presidents in recent years.

They also need to buckle down on fundraising. For Fisk, Gasman says, this means spelling out why it has such a vital role today, not just in the past.

"I think HBCU history and legacy is very important, but you can't fall back on that," she says. "No one's going to give to Fisk merely because of Jubilee Singers or Jubilee Hall. They want to see what Fisk is doing now."

Fundraising Of The Future

And the university wants this to happen.

"That's the real push," says director of insitutitonal advancement Jens Frederiksen. "Making Nashville and making, for that matter, the country aware of what's happening at Fisk."

Frederiksen, a Vanderbilt alum who calls himself an "adopted Fiskite," is the person in charge of fundraising at Fisk. He says he wants the school to be known for its academics. For example, Fisk produces more African Americans with masters degrees in physics than any other school, and it places highly nationally in terms of research spending, according to the university.

Frederiksen says the school wants to move away from the reputation of being strapped for cash.

"I think, for a long time, we were probably mired down in a few familiar narratives that sort of usurped all the press," he says.

The school is also getting more aggressive about fundraising. It's running a campaign to increase the percentage of alumni who donate, from a quarter to a half. It's also reaching outside the school more, making the case to people or companies who are not related to Fisk.

Fisk is on track to finish the year with a 25 percent boost in fundraising over last year, Frederiksen says. The school brought in less than $5 million in contributions during its 2014 fiscal year; the goal this year is around $6 million.

Unlike 150 years ago, the Jubilee Singers aren't official fundraisers anymore, but they're ambassadors for the university, singing around the country or at high profile events like the massive Nashville New Years Eve celebration.

In other words, Fisk still depends on the Jubilee Singers — but the fortunes of the school no longer rest on their voices.