Independent Lens: "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities"

Independent Lens: "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities"

Sun, 02/16/2020 - 2:00pm - 4:00pm

Spelman College class, 1898.

Courtesy of Spelman College

The rich history of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began before the end of slavery, flourished in the 20th century and profoundly influenced the course of the nation for more than 150 years — yet remains largely unknown.

 With Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, the latest documentary from Stanley Nelson (Black Panthers, Freedom Riders), America’s foremost film chronicler of the African-American experience, the powerful story of the rise, influence and evolution of HBCUs comes to life. Tell Them We Are Rising, co-directed and co-produced by Marco Williams, premieres on Independent Lens, Sunday, February 16, 2020 at 2 p.m. on WXXI-TV.

A haven for black intellectuals, artists and revolutionaries — and a path of promise toward the American Dream — HBCUs have educated the architects of freedom movements and cultivated leaders in every field while remaining unapologetically black for more than 150 years. These institutions have nurtured some of the most influential Americans of our time, from Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois to Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison to Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker to Spike Lee to Common. 

A key driver of black social, political and economic progress, HBCUs were also a place of unprecedented freedom for African-American students and a refuge from the rampant racism that raged outside the campus walls. Created following the era when it was a crime in many states to teach African Americans to read, HBCUs sprang up following the end of the Civil War, particularly in the rural south. On these campuses were waged the intellectual battles that would determine the future of African-American society, starting with the ideological difference between Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on technical trades and W.E.B. Du Bois’ more progressive vision of HBCUs as not just institutions for turning out labor for white businesses, but places of intellectual rigor and societal transformation.

That ideology took root following WWI, when African-American soldiers returned from the front expecting a more equitable piece of the American Dream. Known as “The New Negro” movement, these new students wanted nothing less than the full rights of citizenship. More HBCUs were founded — and run by — African-American leaders, unlike their predecessors. During the 1930s and 40s — what many consider the “Golden Age” of HBCUs — these institutions graduated doctors, lawyers and professionals who created the first black middle class.

The influence of HBCUs would continue to grow as Howard University Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston and graduate Thurgood Marshall fought the case that sounded the death knell for segregation with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; six years later, it was four North Carolina A&T students who began the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in that led to the dismantling of segregation in public spaces.