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A new documentary tells the story of how black colleges shaped America

HBCUs have long been incubators for black activism. But at a time of heightened racial tensions and fewer resources, black institutions are at a critical moment.

Created to educate black students at a time when white society had yet to embrace them as equals, historically black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs, have had an outsize impact on the success of the black community.

Alumni of black colleges and universities are a considerable part of the black middle class, with large numbers of the nation’s black doctors, teachers, and engineers having attended an HBCU. The schools have served as incubators for black activism, playing prominent roles in the racial justice struggles of the past and present.

Each new generation of students has retained this desire for progress, pushing against their educators when necessary. Last year when students confronted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Bethune-Cookman University and James Comey at Howard University, their demonstrations were inspired by a history of activism that has seen students at black colleges voicing their opinions against powerful figures, sometimes to the frustration of their elders.

In this clip from Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, experts explain why black colleges were pivotal to black America.

But HBCUs are also facing a crisis.

Even as roughly 300,000 students attended HBCUs in 2015, the share of black students attending HBCUs has fallen from 17 percent in 1980 to 9 percent in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, affecting tuition rates, loan affordability, and endowments from alumni or other benefactors.

HBCUs rely heavily on federal funding, and some have sought to maintain open communication with the Trump administration over the objections of some students and alumni. But many schools weigh the conflict of working with a presidential administration that’s paid little more than lip service to these institutions while also acting at odds with racial justice advocates and communities of color in general.

These tensions were on full display a year ago when the presidents of more than 70 black colleges and universities met with President Donald Trump. The university presidents went to Washington to secure increased funding, a concern that went unaddressed in Trump’s first budget proposal (his plan maintains level funding for HBCUs but proposes cuts to some aid programs, like federal work-study, that many HBCU students rely on.)

There is perhaps no better moment then to tell the story of these institutions. On February 19, PBS’s Independent Lens will premiere Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, a new feature-length documentary tracing the history of HBCUs from slavery to now, and exploring how the institutions played crucial roles in a number of civil rights issues over the decades. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, was written and directed by Stanley Nelson, an award-winning filmmaker who directed multiple projects, including 2015’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

I spoke with Nelson about the history of HBCUs and their connection to figures like Booker T. Washington, why the schools have been such a strong incubator for black progressivism, and what Trump misunderstands about black colleges. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

P.R. Lockhart

Why did you want to make this film?

Stanley Nelson

The first reason behind the creation of the film would be that my parents went to HBCUs: My father went to Howard University; my mother went to Talladega College. My father and his brother were the first people in their family to graduate from high school, and my father went on to become a successful dentist. Going to Howard and having the opportunity to go to college really changed his life. That’s really important for him and my family.

I also think the HBCU story is important. It has been one of the institutions that have sustained African Americans and has probably been one of the greatest catalysts for pushing African Americans into the middle class that there ever was. I thought it was a really great story and that there were really dramatic stories within that story that we could tell.

P.R. Lockhart

When you talk about seeing “dramatic stories with that story,” can you explain a bit more what some of those stories are?

Stanley Nelson

We tell a number of stories within the film. We talk about the desire for African Americans who are enslaved to be educated, and coming out of the Civil War, the push by African Americans to get an education. We then talk about the story of Booker T. Washington and his rise and his debates and battles with figures like W.E.B. Du Bois about which way education should go in the African-American community.

[From there, the film covers] Brown v. Board of Education and how it was the law school of Howard University that really propelled that forward. We talk about the sit-in movements that started at North Carolina A&T and spread to black colleges all through the South and how that was really a student-led and student-organized movement. [The film also examines] the 1972 shooting at Southern University.

African-American students at North Carolina A&T College participate in a sit-in at an F.W. Woolworth's lunch counter. How black students drove the sit-in movement is a key topic in the documentary.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

P.R. Lockhart

In the film, you trace how Booker T. Washington took the idea of black education to white America and really presented it in a less threatening way, saying that it should be a matter of industrial education and of black people gaining practical skills rather than black people learning more holistically. Can you talk about that and the role Washington played in the early development of black education?

Stanley Nelson

He pushed education in a way that was really palatable to white America. That’s what he believed in. We’re very clear in the film that Booker T. Washington was very dangerous. And it’s interesting that we’ve gotten some pushback from black people.

He was probably the most powerful and most famous African American in the country at the turn of the century, and if you look at his Atlanta compromise speech, it is very clear what he was saying: “We will serve you, we will not push for racial equality, we will not push for social equality, we will not push for these things. We will be your bakers and your carpenters and your brick workers.” I think that’s a very dangerous thing he was saying and that he was a dangerous man. And I haven’t heard anything to change my mind on that.

P.R. Lockhart

You mentioned getting pushback on this.

Stanley Nelson

I think some people still see Booker T. Washington as some kind of hero for building a school. I think that’s fine, and what he did with the Tuskegee Institute was incredible. The problem was — and we are clear in the film about this — he was then propped up by Southern planters and Northern industrialists with money and prestige and given this platform from which he says, “This is the way that black people should be educated; this is the way to educate in the South.”

And I don’t agree with that. And at the time, [W.E.B.] Du Bois didn’t agree with it and I think many other African-American scholars at the time didn’t agree with it, and that’s why you see this great debate about black education play out.

It’s a story in the film because it is a turning point in the story of the education of African Americans. Which way are we going to go? Are we going toward the industrial education that Washington is expounding, or are we going to be educated in the same way that white folks are being educated, or at least toward the same goals that white people are being educated?

P.R. Lockhart

Another big idea explored in the film is that black students at HBCUs have historically really been on the front lines of developing black thought and activism.

Stanley Nelson

We wanted to say that at many times, it has been HBCU students who have led the progressive movements, sometimes in opposition to faculty, sometimes not, but that many of the social justice movements in this country have come about on HBCU campuses.

P.R. Lockhart

So earlier this year, you released a short documentary as part of the New York Times Op-Docs series that looks at President Trump and HBCUs in particular. Given all you’ve researched about HBCUs, can you talk to me a bit about exactly how Trump can influence these institutions?

Stanley Nelson

Many HBCUs receive money from the federal government; many of them are public institutions, state institutions. Many of them would love to receive more money from the federal government. Right there, that is the power that Trump holds over them. And there are other ways, like Pell Grants that students use, that tie the federal government to the purse strings of HBCUs.

The other thing is that HBCUs tend to have incredibly small endowments. Things become more crucial if you don’t have a billion-dollar endowment like many private white institutions do. You’re functioning on the edge anyway, and now you have an unstable president.

P.R. Lockhart

Trump has made some ham-fisted attempts to engage these schools, and the schools themselves have gotten some pushback for engaging with the administration. In the Op-Doc, you call out Talladega for performing in the inaugural parade as a “modern-day minstrel show.”

Stanley Nelson

I think there is a new kind of critique that we all have to have in the age of Trump. I don’t think that was a flamboyant statement — they were given hell by their alumni and the community for performing at Trump’s inauguration. For me to say how I felt personally, you’ve seen the pictures of the performance; I don’t think there is much of an argument with it.

I don’t have an issue with Talladega as a whole — my mother went there. I have a problem with them performing at Trump’s inauguration, which was basically the coronation of a man that is toxic to the black community.

A member of the Talladega College marching band performs during the inaugural parade on January 20, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

P.R. Lockhart

That performance was controversial among some students and alumni, but Talladega raised a lot of money from that controversy, largely from white donors. But beyond that performance, we have other tensions between Trump and HBCUs, from DeVos’s commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman to the ongoing confusion surrounding the White House Initiative on HBCUs. What, if anything, could Trump do to change this relationship?

Stanley Nelson

He could fund them and make that clear that he feels like they are valuable institutions in America and that they should be supported. That’s what many of the HBCU presidents went to Washington for last year. Instead, he says that he thinks funding them could be illegal. [In a signing statement last year, Trump appeared to suggest that financing HBCUs might be unconstitutional. The comments were swiftly condemned by the Congressional Black Caucus.]

That clearly shows that he doesn’t support them. The best thing he could do is support them because he understands what they mean to the American community and the African-American community instead of going to them for photo ops.

P.R. Lockhart

You’ve mentioned the struggles that HBCUs are facing. What does the future look like for these schools right now?

Stanley Nelson

We just took this documentary on tour to some 20 HBCUs. We talked to a lot of presidents both during the tour and while making the film.

I think there is great concern about the future of HBCUs; they’ve always operated on the margins. But in recent years there has been an uptick in enrollment, and at the end of the documentary, we talk to some women inspired to attend HBCUs right now. They want to attend a university where, for four years of their life, they’re not judged by their race or the color of their skin every time they walk into a classroom.