The first Thursday of May has been designated by the United States Congress as the National Day of Prayer. As such, it is especially appropriate to remember that we live in a country blessed with many fine men and women who served their Nation and their God with great conviction.
Erastus Cravath was such a man. Born in 1833 in Homer, New York, to White parents who were ardent abolitionists, Cravath grew up helping escaping slaves. He attended the Oberlin College School of Theology in Ohio, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1857 and a Master of Divinity three years later, after which he became the pastor in a Congregational Church in Ohio. He joined the Union Army in 1863, serving as chaplain of the 101st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regt. during the Franklin and Nashville campaigns. A deeply religious man, he felt a calling to work with freedmen after the war and returned to Nashville as part of the American Missionary Association (AMA), an organization which established freedmen’s schools across the country after the war.
Cravath purchased the land for Fisk University in Nashville and co-founded the university along with two other members of the AMA in 1866. Using Fisk as his base, Cravath also established freedmen’s schools throughout Tennessee and Georgia. After a decade of working for the AMA, he returned to Fisk in 1875 to become its President, a position he held for more than 20 years. As president, he promoted and even toured with the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers, an a cappella group who toured the U.S. and Europe and were responsible for the early popularization of the Negro spiritual musical tradition among White and Northern audiences. The success of the Jubilee Singers while on tour brought vitally needed funds to Fisk University throughout its early years.
Cravath died on September 4, 1900, and he is buried in Nashville National Cemetery. Fisk University, and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, remain a lasting part of his legacy.
Story by Les’ Melnyk, Chief, Public Affairs, Office of Engagement and Memorial Innovation, National Cemetery Administration.