Too few people understand just how much the United States owes to historically black colleges and universities — more commonly called HBCUs — and their graduates. Without HBCUs, there would be no black middle class. And who knows how the course of history would have changed, had Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Oprah, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee, or any other countless African-American leaders not attended HBCUs?
And even with all of the obstacles these institutions face in a presidential administration hostile to both education and black people, they still are centers for innovation, and remain a bastion of empowerment for African-American students. Today, 24 percent of STEM degrees earned by African-American students come from HBCUs. What’s more, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, HBCUs graduate 40 percent of all black members of Congress and black engineers as well as 50 percent of black lawyers and 80 percent of black judges.
Tell Them We Are Rising, a new PBS Independent Lens documentary premiering February 19, tells the history of HBCUs for the first time, from their beginnings after the civil war to their present endurance in the U.S. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson, Jr. — whose past documentaries include Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till, Freedom Riders, and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution — spoke to The Outline via phone about his latest film.
Tell me about how this film came about.
I had been interested in this story for a long time. Many times, people kind of think about these as individual institutions — there's Morehouse, there's FAMU, there's Howard, there's Tuskegee. But I thought that there was a story to be told about these schools together as an institution and nobody else was lining up to tell it. Personally, my mother and father both went to HBCUs. I thought it was just an amazing story to try to tell.
Did you go to an HBCU?
I went to Morris Brown for one term in my college career.
How did that inform your making the movie? There was so much in the movie about how empowering HBCUs can be.
It was something that people told us over and over again when we would go to the HBCUs and talk to people about the difference between HBCUs and majority white institutions. My father and his brother were the first people in his family to graduate high school. My father went on to go to Howard University and then went to Howard Dental School and became a dentist. He always talks about how they nurtured him and how they told him, the first time anybody told him, that he was smart. You're smart, you can do this.
I was in New Haven when I watched the movie, so I was jarred to learn that abolitionists tried to start a black school in New Haven, and were discouraged by Yale University and city leaders. I was also surprised by the extent of Booker T. Washington’s commitment to educating black people to fill subservient roles in society. I'm interested to know if you had assumptions that were challenged, or were just really surprised by something you came across in your research.
There was so much in this that was new to me, so I was surprised by all of it. I was surprised by the New Haven story. I thought that was a really important story because, one, it was one of the first attempts to organize a black college. And, two, that it was in New Haven and that the townspeople vigorously objected to it. I think that it was important to say that there were places in the north where it was illegal to educate blacks folks, so that it was not just the Southern piece. It was thought that African-Americans should not be educated and the country's better off with this uneducated population.
There was so much that I found powerful in this film but one was seeing all the photos of students just in community and celebrating and protesting and learning. Can you tell me a bit about the process of getting the archival material?
One thing that I knew going into the film — which in some ways helped me make the decision to make the film — was that I had come across that knowledge that black colleges and universities had these untapped archives, untapped photos, that people had not really used for other films and had not been seen. When you're looking for archival material, especially archival material of African Americans in the past, there's just not that much sometimes, because black folks didn't get their picture taken that often in some of the poorer sections of this country.
We worked with a number of schools to get their their photos and use their archives. When we first started, the idea was that we were going to work with all 103 or so schools, but quickly we learned that that was impossible. Most of schools don't have an archivist. They would say, Oh yeah, we've got a lot of pictures in boxes in the attic in the library. Three weeks from Tuesday I can go up there during my lunch hour and look through the boxes for you. We realized that that just wouldn't work, so we had to try to figure out which of the schools had the best organized pictures and work with them. But one of the things we wanted to do was try to get at least one picture in from every school and we came close to doing that.
I also really loved the interviews with people who had gone to the schools — the couple that met and fell in love at one school, and the student who was moving into Spellman on her first day. What was it like finding and talking to different people who had gone through the HBCUs at different times?
We wanted, as soon as we could, to try to get to eyewitnesses in. When we got to the period that we call the Golden Age, during the ’30s and ’40s, we were actually able to find some people who we could talk to. They were old, but we could talk to them and they could tell us great stories. I knew all the time that we wanted the last chapter of the film to come up to today, so we really tried to find some some great stories of students who were attending HBCUs today — people who could have chosen to go to majority white institutions that had chosen to go HBCUs, and hear their reasons why today you would choose to go to a black college.
“The America that we live in is becoming... more and more separated in terms of race. That's the time that I see this film coming out in.”
And in talking to them, in doing this research, making this film, what do you see as the future of HBCUs in this country?
One thing that that's happened is there's been actually an increase in applications to many HBCUs in the last two or three years. And part of that is because there's been kind of a heightened — I don't know what you want to call it — a heightened racialization in this country. And some African-American, college-age students are saying I just want to go someplace where I can feel safe, where I can feel like when I walk in the room I'm not looked at for the color of my skin. For four years I want to go to a place where everybody is equal.
So there's actually been an increase in applications in some places, and that's an interesting phenomenon. I think that one thing people can do is support HBCUs. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund, United Negro College Fund between the two represent financially 99 percent of black colleges and universities. People can can give and think about supporting these institutions, which I think the film shows very clearly have been instrumental in the making of America. [HBCUs have] been incredibly valuable institutions for not only African Americans but all Americans.
Now feels like a particularly special time where black filmmakers and black stories are being celebrated and given more resources. What does it mean to have this movie come out at this particular time?
The America that we live in is becoming more and more racialized and more and more separated in terms of race. That's the time that I see this film coming out in. I think it's important that we understand our history and that we understand that there are a set of facts in this world, and this film talks about those facts. I think that's really important.
The film ends with Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which I thought was a great note to end on.
I personally love that song, and I thought it just was so perfect for this montage of students graduating and the exuberance that African-American students had in graduating. There's a difference in one way, because when you go to an African-American graduation at a school you know so many of the students might be the first person in their family [who] graduated college and they've gone through a long struggle to get there. I thought that was really important to have a song that matched that exuberance. We've seen so many trials and tribulations in the film that have happened over 150 years. We started out with education being illegal. We go through all this, and then to have the students graduate, Kendrick Lamar saying, “We're going to be alright” just was fitting.
What is your next project?
Tell Them We Are Rising is part of a trilogy that we're doing for PBS. The first one that we did was Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The second film [is] Tell Them We Are Rising. And the third film is called Creating a New World which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery, looking at the slave trade as this multinational global business that put into place so many of the things — banking, shipping, insurance — that are now part of our lives. Every filmmaker talks about making a film about something that changed the world. I'm making a film about, you know, tennis and it changed the world. Tennis changed the world. Well, I think the slave trade changed the world. I'm willing to bet on that one.