Uncovering the untold stories in black history and culture has been filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s passion throughout his 30-year career. Rather than focusing on individuals, Nelson’s work highlights institutions that have helped African Americans survive and thrive in the U.S.
In previous documentaries, he looked at the black press, the Black Panthers and the civil rights era freedom riders. Nelson’s latest film, “Tell Them We are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” dives into the rich, complex history of America’s historically black colleges and universities.
Airing Monday on PBS, the film is the second in his three-part series on black history called “America Revisited.”
“I went into filmmaking because I thought there was an African American community, an African American history that we weren’t seeing on film,” Nelson said. “It’s been very satisfying for me to be able to tell some of the great stories and go into some lives that I never thought I would go into.”
There are roughly 100 public and private HBCUs in the nation, most of them in the South, educating nearly 300,000 students. Most were established after the Civil War, and until the desegregation of schools in the 1950’s and 1960’s, HBCUs served as a major source of higher learning for black Americans.
Despite brutal punishments, some slaves secretly taught each other to read and write — they saw it as a path to liberation. These informal networks were the beginning of a black education system and eventually the HBCUs.
Spelman College’s 1898 academic class Firelight Media
Told through interviews with historians and HBCU graduates, woven with archival photos and video, “Tell Them We Are Rising” charts the course of HBCUs — from their rise after the end of slavery in the 1860’s to their prominent role as civil rights advocates for the African American community. For example, in 1960, four black North Carolina A&T State University freshmen sat down at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro. They stayed seated until the store closed, even after being asked to leave. Their nonviolent protest started a movement, as hundreds of HBCU students from other states organized their own sit-ins.
“Tell Them We Are Rising” also showcases HBCUs as incubators for some of the most influential figures in U.S. history, including Booker T. Washington, who graduated from Hampton University, Martin Luther King Jr., a Morehouse College graduate, and W.E.B. Du Bois, who graduated from Fisk University. Other prominent HBCU graduates include Toni Morrison (Howard University), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University) and Spike Lee (Morehouse College).
Nelson was inspired by his parents, who both attended HBCU’s in the 1930s.
“It changed my life,” he said. “It changed [my father’s] life, my kids’ lives, the lives of my family all down through the generations. It’s probably one of the most significant things to happen to my family.
Many of the nation’s black doctors, lawyers and other professionals graduated from these schools during the 1930s and 1940s, a period dubbed the “Golden Age of HBCUs,” creating a pathway to form a black middle class.
“It took almost 10 years to make the film,” Nelson noted. “The film is 170 years of history…We can’t tell you everything, but you have an idea of what black colleges and universities are today and what they will be in the future.”
The film’s final section explores the murky future of HBCUs. While some schools continue to flourish, others like Morris Brown College in Georgia, where enrollment dropped to less than 50 students, are all but shuttered.
Stanley Nelson is a documentary filmmaker who explores black history and culture. Firelight Media
Currently, HBCUs educate about 10% of African Americans going to college and produce 17% of the nation’s graduates, said Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, a nearly 75-year-old organization founded by HBCU presidents.
While many people question the need for HBCUs in an age when black people have access to higher education, both Nelson and Lomax say the schools are just as important as they’ve ever been, serving as an intellectual haven for young African Americans in today’s political climate. In a New York Times op-ed, Nelson addressed the need for HBCUs in the age of President Trump. Although Trump — who won just 8% of the black vote — pledged “unwavering support” to HBCUs, some school administrators and lawmakers question his commitment.
Some schools continue to thrive in this uncertain time for HBCUs. Nelson points to Texas Southern University, a school that experienced a dramatic increase in enrollment in the past year.
“There’s a drastic, amazing uptick in applications because there’s a heightened awareness in this country of the racial divide,” Nelson said. “I think young African Americans are saying…’I want to spend four years where I can get my college education and everything I do is not judged by race.’”
Lomax said “Tell Them We Are Rising” connects HBCUs to a new generation of young people who are considering where to go for college.
“This film reminds us of why we need [HBCUs],” he said. “They’re deeply rooted in the African American community. They have lifted our community out of poverty, out of ignorance, out of second-class citizenship and they are still doing that work.”
‘Tell Them We Are Rising’
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)