Tell Them We Are Rising: A Documentary Film Breaks New Ground

Program Associate Emma Taati interviews Stanley Nelson, award-winning filmmaker and National Humanities Medal recipient, about his new documentary on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

HBCU graduates in cap and gownA group of graduating students from Atlanta University class of 1903. Photo courtesy of the the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library.

Founded to educate a population newly freed from legal slavery, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been largely invisible in both American history and the history of higher education. Director Stanley Nelson’s new film, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities, begins with the profound challenge facing schools that were designed to educate African Americans, and that were, with very few exceptions, the only higher education option available to them. The film takes viewers on a fascinating journey starting with the early development of HBCUs and covers their contributions to American history and culture, up to and including the present day.

Nelson is a three-time Emmy award-winning producer-director, MacArthur Fellow, and National Humanities Medal recipient. He presents the first and only multi-platform feature documentary project that explores equal access to higher education as a benchmark of democracy; the intersections between the university and the civil rights movement; changing attitudes toward education in the African American community; and the current and future place of HBCUs in a changing America.

Through its support of curricular and faculty development at a select group of HBCUs, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation occupies a niche in educational philanthropy. Nelson’s new film provides a valuable and necessary complement to our grantmaking in this area.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities premieres Monday, February 19th on PBS stations nationwide. We spoke with Nelson about the making of the film, and what he believes the future holds for HBCUs.

Stanley UPdated with side bars.pngStanley Nelson. Courtesy of Firelight Media

When did the idea for this documentary first come about? Why did you feel the history of HBCUs was worth telling on film?

I started kicking the idea around seven or eight years ago. My parents went to HBCUs and I always felt that the education and empowerment they received from those institutions enabled them to provide the life and opportunities I had. HBCUs are one of the sustaining institutions and pillars of the African American community, yet there has never been a film about them and their future. I felt that if I didn’t do it, no one else would.

Tell us about the research process. What were your primary resources for archival photos and footage? What kind of literature did you find in support of your story? And how did you find the present-day students that are featured in the film?

The powerful photos and footage in the film came from a variety of sources, but primarily the HBCUs themselves. Our goal at first was to contact 100 or so HBCUs and use all of their archives. We soon realized it would be impossible to do this because the schools often lacked staff archivists who could devote their time to a project like this. Luckily, we were able to identify great archival content from institutions like state archives — Mississippi was a huge help — and archive companies, like Corbis, as well as TV networks and local stations. In the end, we got at least one archive piece from every HBCU that currently exists and I’m proud of that. As for the present-day students, we simply told HBCUs’ administrators about the sort of young people we were looking for — vivacious, opinionated - and we worked with faculty to help us whittle down to the final three you meet in the film. And they were great.

“The fact is that there are few comprehensive literary or educational works published about HBCUs…this project is dear to me because I learned so much.”

What surprised you the most about what you learned about the history of these colleges and universities? What didn’t you know before you started the project?

What surprised me most was just how central HBCUs have been to seminal movements and events in the African American community. When you talk about Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights sit-ins, and many other events that transformed America in the 20th century, students led a lot of those movements and were extremely active and vocal.

The fact is that there are few comprehensive literary or educational works published about HBCUs. Sure, there are books on various aspects — on Booker T. Washington’s role in advancing black education, or the sit-in movement. But nothing that gives the history and importance of HBCUs the attention they deserve in their entirety. This project is dear to me because I learned so much.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities by Firelight Films premieres on the acclaimed Independent Lens series on PBS, Monday, February 19th 2018 at 9p ET (check local listings). For more details on the film and the #HBCURising campaign, go to

The filmmaking process allowed you to do a deep dive into the history of HBCUs in the country and to reflect on where they stand today. What do you think the future holds for HBCUs? What are the greatest challenges they face?

Today, their greatest ongoing challenge is financial. One of the reasons is that racial integration of mainstream colleges has given black students more choices for where to study, other than HBCUs. So there has been a drain in both students and faculty. Unfortunately, there are many other challenges facing HBCUs today. My guess is that these challenges will lead to some consolidation across HBCUs.

But it’s important to know that there is still a great need for HBCUs to empower African American students and provide them with the opportunity to get a college education and move into the middle class. I’m hoping that however HBCUs choose to address their challenges, they emerge stronger than they are today.

This film is the second in a three-part series called America Revisited, which centers on the African American experience in U.S. history. Why is the story of HBCUs so important to understanding the black experience in America?

There are very few institutions that have sustained and advanced the African American community in this country as much as HBCUs. Of course, there is the church: there are African American newspapers and magazines that were and are a source of empowerment and a means of expression. But there is no better example than HBCUs to convey the will that African Americans had to achieve success and to be treated and regarded as equals.

Stanley_Nelson_on_set.JPGCourtesy of Firelight Media

This is the first film to cover the entire history of HBCUs from inception to today. What is your perspective about the recent surge in HBCU enrollments and what some are calling an “HBCU Renaissance”?

I’m personally not surprised. Reflecting on the incidents that have taken place in the last few years and increasingly strained race relations, it’s becoming clear to the African American community that there’s a need for safe intellectual spaces. The presidential election divided the country along racial and ethnic lines. And incidents of discrimination and insensitivity at the University of Missouri, Yale and other institutions highlight the aggressions and micro-aggressions that sometimes occur on mainstream college campuses. It’s not a mystery why African American students are looking for a place where their ideas and opinions can be safely expressed and nurtured. HBCUs have always been an empowering and nurturing experience. Now more than ever it serves a critical role as a safe space for young African Americans.

How is the medium of documentary film unique in its ability to share historical information?

Documentaries are unique in that they can tell stories and condense information in an entertaining way. That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? It’s the quickest and easiest way to appeal to people who would never otherwise learn about a particular subject. Very few outsiders know about the significance of HBCUs to the black community. Hopefully, Tell Them We Are Rising will change that.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film most of all? What do you hope the film will accomplish?

Most of all I want audiences to be entertained. There’s a unique pleasure in learning something new and changing the way you see the world around you. I think audiences will walk away with a greater understanding of how important HBCUs have been in shaping the fabric of the African American community and the world at large over the last 150 years. 

Upcoming Event

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities 

A free screening and panel discussion featuring Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander, Mellon Foundation Senior Consulting Fellow Johnnetta Cole, and University of Miami Associate Professor Jafari Allen will be held Tuesday, February 26, 2019 at 5:30pm at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.

More information >>