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'Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities' Addresses the Impact of HBCUs
February 19, 2018  | By Gerald Jordan  | 1 comment

The motto for the fund-raising initiative on behalf of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is a clarion call to action ­– “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” But its noble appeal gets a thorough and disturbing airing in Stanley Nelson’s documentary Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (Monday, 9 p.m. ET on PBS, check local listings).

Consider this: Planters and, by extension, legislatures, made it illegal to teach enslaved persons to read. Once emancipation was law, those formerly held in bondage were apportioned only substandard schools, stocked with outdated materials and insufficient resources. Some of the schools that succeeded despite all odds were destroyed by racist terrorists who sought to restore ways of the defeated Confederacy. And, lastly, the deeply flawed and blatantly flimsy legal doctrine of separate but equal was finally declared illegal by the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

The run-up to that historic decision was bloody, ugly and a runaway waste of millions of the minds that survived and worked through the horrors of slavery.

This second installment in Nelson’s three-part documentary series on black history, titled America Revisited, should be a stunning eye-opener for audiences who haven’t delved into the history of attempts by African Americans to gain an equal education. And some black history heroes, notably Booker T. Washington, get scuffed and revealed as deeply flawed when Nelson peels back the complex layers of black history in education.

For example, Booker T. Washington was once enslaved and thirsted for knowledge so deeply that one of his writings described his being kept outside a schoolhouse as “Getting into that schoolhouse would be like getting into paradise.” Who could imagine that this enslaved child would grow into an educated man who advocated that African Americans be taught “the manual arts” and not the perceived frivolous intellectual pursuits sought by W.E.B. DuBois? A rudimentary education was acceptable to planters and even industrialists as long as those educated minds did not focus on the larger picture of self-determination.

Nelson uses exquisite images that show the profound pride of school children from poses outside one-room schools to the halls of the more than 80 colleges that blossomed in the late 19th century. And his documentary eye captured the cruel juxtaposition of wretched tenant farmers and polished students proudly posing as they sought educations that would not keep them down on the farm. It was not an easy road. Between 1866 and 1872, Nelson documents, about 20,000 people were killed (black and white) in response to educating persons who were formerly enslaved.

The beautiful class portraits speak to the pride and the purpose that African Americans invested in education. The documentary title is taken from a question of freed persons’ status, raised by a Union Army general who was headed back North. Nelson documents that 13-year-old Richard Robert Wright “rose and said ‘Tell them that we are rising.’”

Those words guide the documentary from precious and rare photos to archival news film of modern civil rights protests. The young man’s words also stand as a milepost for a journey that is incomplete.

Booker T. Washington’s yearning for paradise turned into a limited vision of African-Americans’ potential, signaled nationally by his speech to the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. That man whose own rise from slavery made him a hero among African Americans told a mostly white crowd (which, Nelson documents, received him rudely) that separation by race was functional. By the end of his speech, Washington was the toast of white America.

The intellectual DuBois, with his Fisk University (HBCU) undergraduate degree, Harvard Ph.D., and post-graduate research in Germany, was livid. DuBois singled out what he described as “deep regret, sorrow and apprehension” and the “wide currency and ascendency Mr. Washington’s theories have gained. Mr. Washington’s program practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro race.”

DuBois’ vision of higher education called for African-Americans to gain the intellectual capacity to liberate themselves. That clearly was not going to emerge from curriculums shaped by the Industrial Arts. And even though Washington died in 1915, the feud with DuBois often resurfaces as a disagreement between HBCU students and the administrators (at first white) tapped to lead those institutions.

Nelson worked on this documentary for nearly ten years, he said in a Los Angeles Times interview. It’s clear that he could have extended it well beyond its roughly 75-minute run time. The topic is fascinating; the material is compelling. It’s a black history roadway that has multiple topic exits that are worth full documentary treatment.

There’s no spoiler alert to fear. The approximately 100 surviving HBCUs are enduring a range of experiences from Morris Brown University’s enrollment dwindling to fewer than 50 students to popular institutions such as Howard University in Washington and large state-related HBCUs in Florida and Louisiana still attracting enrollment.

Financial shortages and integration have dealt heavy blows to HBCUs. The 1930s and ’40s ushered in the “golden age” for HBCUs, making them “incubators for the black middle class.”

With such a press on now for diversity in enrollment at PWIs (predominantly white institutions, as majority white colleges are referred to at HBCUs), black colleges are redefining and reshaping their recruiting, even going for other racial minorities. Nelson’s interviews on campuses today reflect a deep-seated pride in students at the nearly 100 HBCUs, so much so that it’s inconceivable that they would say anything less than “Tell them we are still rising.”

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Teresa Mitchell
Enjoyed the article it felt like kindred spirits. Looking forward toreading & supporting more of your work. Keep the research going and new discoveries coming! God Speed...
Feb 26, 2018   |  Reply
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