The Story of HBCUs Rising

Film Shows Struggle, Success of Black Schools

Stanley Nelson
Award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson, writer, producer and director of the HBCU documentary "Tell Them We Are Rising," is interviewed by Washington Informer staff writer Brenda C. Siler. (Brigette White/The Washington Informer)

On Monday, Feb. 19, eyes will be on the long-awaited historical documentary “Tell Them We Are Rising,” a part of the PBS series “Independent Lens.”

Almost 15 years in the making, this look at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) opens with slaves being denied, and oftentimes killed for, the opportunity to learn to read. The documentary then fast-forwards to the joy of today’s students reaping the rewards through their academic success and friendships at their chosen college.

Stanley Nelson is the writer, director and producer of the documentary, also referred to by its abbreviated name “HBCURising.” Film co-producer is New York-based Firelight Media. For the past few months, Nelson and Firelight Media have traveled to HBCU campuses and major cities to promote the production.

At a recent screening, Nelson, who grew up in D.C., spoke about his father and uncle, who were Howard University graduates.

During the film’s production, Nelson said he was surprised by stunning archival photos and footage that his researchers found. The actual footage of a 1972 protest at Southern University, where two students were killed on camera, is one of many impactful moments in the documentary.

At a Howard University screening, shocked students could be heard moaning softly while viewing the level of police presence at Southern University and at their own Howard University in the 1960s.

“I want young people who see this film to understand their history and how important Black colleges have been,” Nelson said. “We need young people now, more than ever to take up those protest movements and push for change in this country. The safe intellectual space for that to happen for young Black students is at our colleges and universities.”

Nelson, a McArthur “Genius” Fellow and winner of multiple Emmys, has produced more than 12 documentaries, including “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” “Freedom Summer, Freedom Riders,” “Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple” and “The Murder of Emmett Till.”

To promote the upcoming broadcast of “HBCURising,” Nelson had an exhausting schedule of screenings in major cities and on HBCU campuses.

The enthusiasm for the documentary has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly when audience members see their school on the screen.

“It’s been a love fest,” Nelson said. “Attendees showed up in their school, sorority and fraternity colors and paraphernalia. It’s the first time people have seen a film like this.”

During a screening at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Nelson asked the audience to utilize social media to promote the broadcast and to help get the hashtag #HBCURising trending on Feb. 19, the day of the PBS broadcast.

Viewers can join a live Twitter chat during the broadcast, beginning at 9 p.m. ET. In the D.C. region, the documentary will air on WHUT-TV, WETA-TV and MPT-TV.

“It’s easy to forget how our HBCUs began. They began because no one else would educate us,” said educator Johnnetta B. Cole, who attended the museum screening and is the only person to ever lead two women-only HBCUs, Spelman College and Bennett College for Women. “Places that educate leaders in this country and the world are called historically Black colleges and universities. Since they do exist, we must support them.”

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