The above photograph somewhat resembles a photograph I took of Kirkland Hall at Vanderbilt University – so much so that it could very well be the same campus. However, this is a photograph of Cravath Hall at Fisk University. Both photographs feature the main administrative building on campus. Trees obstruct both of these important buildings. Though these photographs look similar, they belong to two different universities with very different histories. That these photographs look similar masks the very different histories of these two universities.
Both schools were founded in Nashville around the same time – Fisk University in 1867 and Vanderbilt University in 1873. The similarities in their missions – to provide excellent education and produce exemplary citizens – were overshadowed by the differences in the constituents the schools’ services were offered to. Where Vanderbilt University catered to society’s elites, Fisk University addressed the needs of some of those most disenfranchised in the antebellum south – former slaves.
Fisk, a historically black university, played a very different role in the civil rights movement than did Vanderbilt. Where Fisk students, staff, and faculty made up a large part of those involved in the Nashville sit-ins, Vanderbilt as a whole was in favor of segregation. Vanderbilt Divinity student James Lawson was famously expelled from the university for actively leading Nashville sit-ins.
As a student at Vanderbilt University, the photograph taken on Vanderbilt’s campus holds more personal significance for me than the one taken on Fisk University’s campus. The Vanderbilt photograph features an area of campus that I often walk through, and the trees in particular are tied to my experiences here. But though the Vanderbilt photo is more personal, I still feel connected to the Fisk photo, perhaps because Cravath Hall looks so much like it could be a Vanderbilt building (I think it looks particularly like Central Library on Vanderbilt’s main campus.) The tree obstructing the view of Cravath Hall further enhances the photo’s familiarity to me.
Knowing the often contrasting histories of these two collegiate institutions, the familiarity I feel from the Fisk University photograph comes across as deceptive. How can such different institutions appear so similar? I could easily tell someone that the photo of Cravath Hall is a building on Vanderbilt’s campus, and have him or her believe me. Presented together, these photos make me question how to use photography as evidence. Neither of these photographs are doctored in any way, but they send an inaccurate message concerning the connection between the two schools.
I believe that these photographs shown together are deceiving in that they conceal the extreme differences in the universities’ histories. However, the similarities in the photographs hint that the similarities in the universities are strong, despite historical disagreements. As mentioned before, the two schools were founded around the same time and the same place. With these similarities came similarities for building the institution in the first place. Today, the goals of the universities are strikingly similar. The Fisk University official website states the university’s mission: “Fisk University produces graduates from diverse backgrounds with the integrity and intellect required for substantive contributions to society. Our curriculum is grounded in the liberal arts. Our faculty and administrators emphasize the discovery and advancement of knowledge through research in the natural and social sciences, business and the humanities. We are committed to the success of scholars and leaders with global perspective.” Vanderbilt University’s mission statement reads, “Vanderbilt University is a center for scholarly research, informed and creative teaching, and service to the community and society at large. Vanderbilt will uphold the highest standards and be a leader in the quest for new knowledge through scholarship, dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach, creative experimentation of ideas and concepts. In pursuit of these goals, Vanderbilt values most highly, intellectual freedom that supports open inquiry and equality, compassion, and excellence in all endeavors.” It is clear that the goals of the two seemingly very different universities are quite similar.
Looking at the similarities between the two schools and seeing how similar the photographs of the two places can look, I recall the artist’s project in which he presented similar photographs of very different people – for example showing Nazi family photos next to European Jewish family photos and realizing that they are very similar photographs. The similarities in the photographs present a deception but also show a commonality in humanity.
While the two Nashville schools have conflicted in the past, the future may hold more unity for these two private universities in Nashville. As the photographs show, despite the universities’ differing histories, they share common values.