I admit that I have a special place for Fisk University in my heart. It is the first historically Black institution I ever visited. The campus is quaint, pretty, and jam-packed with African-American history and treasures. My dissertation, and first book, pertained to Fisk University President Charles S. Johnson and his ability to raise money for African-American higher education. I used the archives at Fisk and interviewed roughly 50 alumni for my dissertation research. Let’s just say that I spent quite a bit of time on the Fisk campus. As I would walk around, I got a sense of who had walked on the grounds in the past—luminaries like Dr. W.E.B Du Bois, Dr. John Hope Franklin, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Nikki Giovanni, Dr. David Levering Lewis, Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes and the amazing Jubilee Singers.
I also visited the Carl Van Vechten art gallery when I was on the Fisk campus. It was a beautiful little gallery that boasted one of the best art collections in the South, if not the country. What I liked best was the juxtaposition of African art with the collection donated by Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. For me the most interesting aspect of the art collection was its history. The collection is on the small Black college campus in Nashville, Tennessee, due to a friendship between Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles S. Johnson. Johnson was heavily connected with the New York and the Harlem Renaissance scene. According to two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author David Levering Lewis, Johnson was the architect of the Renaissance—a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker who was highly skilled at raising money for Black artists, performers, and writers. He met O’Keeffe through his artist friends and developed a close friendship. O’Keeffe cherished Johnson’s respect and admiration for art and saw the many cultural activities taking place at Fisk. When her beloved husband, Alfred Stieglitz, passed away, O’Keeffe donated his art collection to Fisk. We’d be mistaken to underestimate Johnson’s role in securing the collection—he understood the value of art and its cultural value to Fisk.
Under Johnson’s leadership (1946-56), the Fisk campus thrived. It earned the first Phi Beta Kappa chapter at a Black institution; it boasted a Ford Foundation-funded early college program that enrolled students such as Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole; it had a faculty of nationally known artists and writers that shaped the creative souls of its students; and it was the darling of the foundation world. Unfortunately Charles S. Johnson died in 1956 at the age of 63—many of his bold ideas died with him. Fisk managed to flourish during the years immediately after Johnson’s death, when Stephen Wright was president, but after that the institution has struggled to retain its glory.
Created immediately after the Civil War to educate former slaves, Fisk is an American treasure with a rich history that speaks volumes about African-American culture. In my opinion, it would be an atrocity to let the institution fail. However, selling an art collection against the intentions of the donor is not going to save Fisk. According to recent articles on the institution’s struggles and its president, Hazel O’Leary, Fisk needs roughly $120 million to get back on its feet. The sale of the O’Keeffe collection would only earn $30 million, and selling it violates the donor covenant. In truth, it’s not Fisk’s collection to sell.
What Fisk really needs is for the thousands of alumni and other individuals who have benefited from the institution to step up and support it now and in the future. As my colleague Nelson Bowman at Prairie View A&M University has said over and over, fundraising for a crisis doesn’t work; fundraising needs to be consistent. Fisk is an institution that has produced amazing individuals who have shaped the lives of all Americans. Regardless of our racial or ethnic backgrounds or whether we were students at the institution, we should value Fisk for its contributions to American society, the Black middle class, arts and culture, and beyond.
Philanthropic contributions are definitely needed to support and sustain Fisk, but the institution also needs to examine itself, cutting costs wherever necessary. The Fisk leadership needs to be completely innovative and not adhere to the same practices that do not work. They also need to assess their own role in the institution’s current situation and work to make the situation better through any means necessary.
I personally want to see Fisk survive and thrive. What are we going to do to make sure that happens?
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).