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The History and Success of HBCUs Are Documented in 'Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities'
February 19, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Stanley Nelson’s new documentary on black colleges and universities finds more solid ground in the past than in the present or the future.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities premieres at 9 p.m. ET Monday (check local listings) on PBS’s Independent Lens series. It’s the second in filmmaker Nelson’s documentary trilogy that began with the Black Panthers and will conclude with the slave trade.

Nelson traces the birth and growth of HBCUs, (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and makes a strong case that they were powerful incubators both for the ongoing 150-year-old equality movement and for giving blacks a place where they could become professionals and leaders.

Some of that legacy continues today, his film suggests. But after spending more than an hour on the rich history of HBCUs, he says noticeably little about their future.

Unspoken, but fair game for assumption, is that HBCUs are among the many black institutions, like baseball’s Negro Leagues, which were wounded by their own success. Once black students were more welcomed in mainstream higher education, the demand for HBCUs got smaller.

Nelson doesn’t get into that discussion, if only because most of Tell Them We Are Rising is focused on how important HBCUs have been for the last century and a half.

They were founded for the most American of reasons: Many white folks in the 19th century didn’t want black folks in their world except as workers and servants.

Just as restaurants didn’t want blacks at their tables and hotels didn’t want blacks in their rooms and towns didn’t want blacks in their swimming pools, white folks sure as shooting didn’t want blacks in their schools.

Nelson further notes that in many states it had recently been illegal to teach slaves to read.

The fear was that if they got educated, they might get ideas, which of course is exactly what happened. So even after the Civil War, when it wasn’t just Southern whites who preferred to keep newly freed blacks in subservience, that fear of education resonated.

Tell Them We Are Rising says 20,000 people were killed between 1866 and 1872 over attempts to set up educational systems for blacks.

Those attempts persisted, however, and by the late 19th century there were 86 black colleges and universities, some founded by governments, some by churches. Their mission: giving opportunities to those officially or unofficially unwelcome at existing schools.

Not all these colleges and universities were high-minded by our standards today. Many had white presidents who saw a major part of their mission as keeping what they saw as the dangerously animalistic instincts of their students in check.

One of the most prominent black educators of the day, Booker T. Washington (left) – who does not come off well in this documentary – was convinced that the Negro race was not yet ready for equality. His schools concentrated on teaching manual skills. Booker T. also famously reassured Southern whites that his race had no aspirations for forcible integration.

By the early 20th century, more HBCU students were embracing the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, who saw no reason black Americans should not have the full citizenship rights and privileges of white Americans.

The ‘30s and ‘40s became a golden age for HBCUs. With most white college doors still closed to black students, they flocked to where they were welcome. Nelson’s film reports that more than half of blacks in skilled professional positions came from HBCUs.

Things took a new turn in the 1950s and early 1960s when students at schools like North Carolina A&T conducted some of the first nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins that would soon topple so many of legal segregation’s dominoes.

Tell Them We Are Rising lingers on images of HBCU students helping drive The Movement as it morphed into the more militant stage of the early 1970s.

At the same time, the film also reminds us that students at HBCUs are no different from students anywhere. They like to hang out with their friends, go to parties, dance, go to football games.

One student explains that the difference is cultural. She likes having some black teachers. She likes not being a “minority.”

Nelson’s films recognize race as an enormously complicated subject, and Tell Them We Are Rising implicitly notes how far we have come while acknowledging no one is sure where the path will lead next.

He also makes a compelling case that whatever the flaws and however uncertain the future of many HBCUs, they have taken America further down the right road.

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