Tell Them Historically Black Colleges Are Rising

By this time next year, the documentary Tell Them We Are Rising may have already aired on PBS, but even now there’s plenty of buzz around this eagerly awaited film.

Scheduled to broadcast nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens in early 2018, the film examines the role that historically black colleges have played in the development of African Americans.

The 90-minute film and multiplatform project by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson also explores how HBCUs have left their impact on the country as a whole.

I spoke with Nelson via e-mail to learn more.

Why are you doing this film, and what is its purpose?

Outside of the HBCU community, most Americans know little about these institutions…. I figured that if I taught African Americans something new about HBCUs then I would be educating all of America…. These schools have provided the foundation of black intellectual thought for 160 years. I’ve spent a career documenting key leaders and events in African American history but make no mistake, there would be no civil rights movement without HBCUs.

In working on this film did anything surprise you?

The subtext of the film is the importance African Americans place on controlling their educational destiny.… HBCUs have not always been controlled by the African American community, and that has been a point of tension for over 150 years. I think any discussion about current tensions between students and HBCU administrations needs to understand that tension in its historical context.

Why is it important for all Americans to know about the role of historically black colleges?

I set out to tell a story of Americans who refused to be denied a higher education and–in their resistance–created a set of institutions that would influence and shape the landscape of the country for centuries. Tell Them We Are Rising sets out to uncover the role these institutions have played throughout American history.  

What do you want viewers to take away from your film?
We have to tell the story of HBCUs so that all Americans understand the role they have played in lifting formerly enslaved African Americans out of poverty, of creating the black middle class, and educating the architects and foot soldiers of social movements, and leaders across business, medicine, the arts, and politics. It is critically important for Americans to understand that they were not the “first example of school choice.” And despite the fact that these schools were born of racial segregation, their impact and vitality is unparalleled.

Visit to learn more.