Back to Inquiry Set

Students and teachers in training school of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee

Photograph of a classroom of African-American students and teachers at Fisk University

Fisk University
between 1890 and 1906
Library of Congress

Students and teachers in training school of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. Tennessee Nashville, None. [Between 1890 and 1906] Photograph.

Before Reconstruction, most African-Americans could not attend school. Though some free Blacks had received some schooling, white state legislators before the Civil War had made it illegal in most slave states to teach an enslaved person to read or write. Why do you think this might be? Many newly-freed people, as well as other Black Americans, were eager for the opportunity to attend school to expand their knowledge and skills. Black Americans in the South went to great lengths to establish and operate schools - imposing taxes on themselves to fund the building of school houses and the payment of teachers’ salaries. They found support from the Freedmen’s Bureau, from some northerners who donated money and other resources, and eventually from state governments. Fisk University was one of the early schools built for the purpose of teaching African-Americans. It trained many teachers who went out to lead their own classrooms. Why is it important that all citizens have the right to go to school? What can education do for a person?

Established in 1866, the Fisk Free Colored School first held classes in U.S. Army barracks outside of Nashville, Tennessee. People ranging in age from seven to seventy attended the school, receiving a basic education in reading and math. In the fall of 1867 the state of Tennessee created a free public school system, prompting the need for many new teachers. Fisk transitioned to training teachers and became Fisk University in that same year. An important part of the school’s history is its choral group, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The Jubilee Singers performed around the world, impressing their audiences with their skills and providing an example of middle-class Blacks in American society. Their singing tour raised funds to keep Fisk University open.

Some schools in this period also received funding from the Freedmen’s Bureau, and from northern churches and aid groups seeking to support education for the newly-freed Americans. Most schools serving Black Americans were established by Black community members committed to creating a pathway toward full participation in American society. Before 1868, when the state governments became involved, Black southerners spent over one million dollars to ensure schooling for themselves.


Note: This photograph was taken in 1890, after the end of the Reconstruction period. The continuation of Fisk University is an example of one successful outcome of Reconstruction efforts.