Following a listening session with the leaders of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised such institutions as “pioneers of school choice.” In the PBS documentary film, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, award-winning director Stanley Nelson offers a truer, more complex history, beginning with the earliest, essential role of HBCUs in providing former slaves with the much-desired education that white society denied them.
The 90-minute film covers the origins and challenges of these institutions as well as the pride and ongoing strife visible at HBCUs. The film also more broadly explores the meaning and purpose of higher education to African Americans living in an oppressive, segregated America, answering the question: What is the relationship of education to the broader aspirations of African Americans? The title phrase comes from history, when a Union general asked a group of African American students what he should tell people in the North just after the Civil War ended. A young student said to the general: “Tell them we are rising.”
Tell Them We Are Rising celebrates the unique gifts that HBCUs have offered, and continue to offer, African American students. As showcased in the film, their campuses are places to experience being in the majority, havens from an often hostile, highly racialized society — innovative centers for what would ultimately become nationwide social justice movements.
The film, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Lumina Foundation, is available on PBS.com.●
This article was published in our April 2018 issue.