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'Tell Them We Are Rising' Tackles Impact Of Historically Black Colleges


February is Black History Month. That's the time of year when we make a special effort to learn about some of the key people who've shaped black life in America. But now we're going to hear more about one of the key institutions that shaped many of those figures. We're talking about historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs. Many of the African-Americans whose names you know attended them, like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, even the star of the new "Black Panther" movie, Chadwick Boseman. You might remember when newly-installed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called these schools, quote, "pioneers of school choice" in a statement following a listening session with HBCU leaders.

But these institutions were founded when African-Americans, many formerly enslaved, did not have a choice. They were not allowed to attend most schools, yet they created spaces that nurtured and inspired political leadership and economic advancement. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson tells that story in his latest documentary, "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Stories Of Black Colleges And Universities." And Stanley Nelson is with us now from our studios in New York. Stanley Nelson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STANLEY NELSON: Thank you so much for having me here.

MARTIN: You know, your film powerfully describes just how much of a burning desire that formerly enslaved people - or actually people still living under slavery - had for education and just how much resistance they encountered in trying to get that education. Let's play a clip. This is Kimberly Crenshaw, executive director of the African-American Policy Forum.


KIMBERLE CRENSHAW: A slaveholder could do virtually anything to his slave. He could work his slave to death. He could rape his slave. He could sell his slave. It's my property, the argument was, so I can do whatever I want to with my property, except one thing I can't do to my property. I can't teach my property. I can't teach my slave how to read or write. An educated black population could not be an enslaved black population.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that? Tell us just some of the stories about just the lengths that people went to to try to get schooling.

NELSON: Yeah, I mean, the film starts with some recreations that we made, where people are using anything that they could find to try to write. You know, a pencil and paper were not available to enslaved people so, you know, people wrote in flour as they were cooking. They wrote in water - they would pour water on the floor and try to, you know, make letters out of water - anything they could to learn to read and write.

I think one of the things that's so fascinating about the Kimberle Crenshaw quote is that it really sets up the idea that that education was forbidden and why it was forbidden because one of the things that you have to understand about the time of slavery for African-Americans is if you can't read and write, all you know is what's on that plantation and on maybe the next plantation down the road. So you don't know that there's an Africa. You don't know that there's an England. You don't know that there's an Asia. All you know is your time of enslavement. And I think that was one of the central pieces that we wanted to convey in this film.

MARTIN: You know, the film is very, you know, exciting in a lot of ways. It's very moving, but it also ends on a very unsettled note, if I could put it that way. I mean, toward the end of the film, a number of the interviewees express a lot of uncertainty about the future of HBCUs. I mean, five have closed since 1989. Several others, including one that you attended, Morris Brown College, lost their accreditation. And there are those who argue that with the era of, you know, legal segregation over, black students have choices and some argue better choices that have more, you know, presence in the - kind of the current economy. And all of that seems to be kind of weighing on all of these institutions. I mean, what do you say about that?

NELSON: Well, I mean, I think that certainly many HBCUs have had a harder time since integration. But in the last couple of years, many HBCUs have seen an increase in application as we go into this kind of very highly racialized new United States that we live in, so that many young African-Americans who are going to college are saying, you know, let me live, you know, four years of my life in a safe black intellectual space, in a space where I'm not going to be judged every time I enter the room by the color of my skin. So there's been an increase in some schools.

One of the things that people say over and over again is, you know, we don't talk about whether we need Catholic universities. We don't talk about whether we need Yeshiva. You know, so why are we even talking about this? The other thing is that, you know, black colleges and universities still today graduate an outsized number of African-Americans in so many fields - you know? - in the STEM fields, lawyers, doctors, dentists, judges.

It's really important that we have this kind of safe intellectual space for young African-Americans. There's a reason why Martin Luther King graduated from an HBCU. There's a reason why Brown vs. Board of Ed came out of an HBCU. There's a reason why the Sit-In Movement started at an HBCU and spread all over the South. So I think, you know, we need those institutions today just as much as we ever did.

MARTIN: The film is premiering on PBS, which means it'll have a national exposure. And yet, you've come off of this exhausting schedule of screening at 20 different HBCUs. I mean...

NELSON: Yeah, about 20 HBCUs, right.

MARTIN: What reaction did you get from the students?

NELSON: The reaction has just been amazing. You know, when we'd go to HBCUs, I mean, not only do people come from that school, but people come from the surrounding area who have gone to different schools, and they all come in wearing their school colors. People clap when there's a picture of their school in the film. We just see - we're able to use just incredible, incredible pictures and footage because we went back to the schools themselves and found pictures and footage in their archives that nobody has ever seen before. You know, these pictures have not been used in other documentaries, so the images that we use in the film are just incredible.

MARTIN: And where does the title come from?

NELSON: It comes from a story, you know, right after the Civil War. A Union general went down South to look at what was going on, and he talked to a group of students, and he said, well, what should I tell them up North when I go back North? And a student raised his hand and stood up and said, tell them we are rising. And we heard that story. We said, OK, there's the title. We've got the title. Now all we have to do is make a film.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. That's Stanley Nelson. He's the director of the new documentary "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story Of Black Colleges And Universities." It airs at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, although you'll want to check your local listings for your exact times. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Stanley Nelson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NELSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATMOSPHERE'S "YESTERDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.