Fisk University Works To Move Past Cash-Strapped History The Fisk Jubilee Singers famously saved Fisk University from financial ruin 150 years ago. But even now, the Nashville school's financial problems remain.
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Fisk University Works To Move Past Cash-Strapped History

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Fisk University Works To Move Past Cash-Strapped History

Fisk University Works To Move Past Cash-Strapped History

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Fisk University opened in Nashville after the Civil War to educate freed slaves. Its students have gone on to become stars of the Harlem Renaissance and leaders in the civil rights movement. But the school still grapples with the dilemma that's been there since its beginning, how to become financially sustainable. Emily Siner from member station WPLN has the story.

EMILY SINER, BYLINE: Fisk is perhaps most widely known for its music.

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FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Swing low, sweet chariot.

SINER: This is a recording of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909. And its musical legacy is intertwined with money. Just five years after the school was founded in 1866, Congress stopped funding black colleges. Historian Reavis Mitchell says money dried up.

REAVIS MITCHELL: When the school reached the point of less than a dollar left in the treasury, and there was no hope, a student course was put together in the fall of 1871.

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FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Coming for to carry me home. But still my soul feels...

SINER: That chorus of nine students set out on its first national tour.

MITCHELL: They would present themselves, some the children of slaves, a few enslaved themselves. And the world was astonished by these young people from this place called Fisk.

SINER: The Jubilee Singers became legendary. They performed at the White House for President Grant. They traveled to England and sang for Queen Victoria. She instructed her court painter to create their portrait, which still hangs at Fisk today. And the tours worked. With the money the singers raised, Fisk bought the land it sat on and built the campus's first permanent building. It's still a point of pride even today.

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Lord, I'm out here on your word.

SINER: At Fisk events, speakers frequently invoke the original nine Jubilee Singers, thanking them for their dedication to the school. But as their legacy lives on, so does the financial burden they had tried to relieve. Fisk nearly went bankrupt in the 1980s. Then, a decade ago, it set off a long legal battle when it tried to sell famous paintings donated by Georgia O'Keefe.

The school was later put on temporary probation for its finances. That's not to say it's always been shaky. Marybeth Gasman at the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions actually wrote her dissertation on what she calls Fisk's golden years, the 1940s and '50s.

MARYBETH GASMAN: And that's really the last time that Fisk had, like, real financial success. And they were at the helm of HBCUs.

SINER: To get back to that point, Gasman says, Fisk needs a few things. It needs stable leadership. It's been cycling through presidents lately. It also needs to buckle down on fundraising, getting potential donors excited about the school today - not just its history.

GASMAN: No one's going to give to Fisk merely because of the Jubilee Singers or Jubilee Hall. You know, they want to see what Fisk is doing now.

SINER: That's one of the biggest challenges for Jens Frederiksen. He's in charge of fundraising. He says he wants to move the school away from its reputation of being strapped for cash.

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

SINER: Instead, Frederiksen wants to highlight academics. For example, Fisk is nationally ranked for its master's program in physics. He's also trying to increase alumni and private-company donations.

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FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, troubles of the world, the troubles of the world. Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, going home to live with God.

SINER: The Jubilee Singers still have a role in all this 150 years later. They're seen as ambassadors for the university as they travel around the country to perform. But this time, the fortunes of the school no longer rest on their voices. For NPR News, I'm Emily Siner in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) No more weeping and a wailing, no more weeping and a wailing. I'm going to live with God. No more weeping and a wailing. No more weeping...

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