The follow-up to Emmy Award-winning director Stanley Nelson’s critically acclaimed The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution tackles a system that millions of Black Americans are familiar with: Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Nelson spoke with EBONY about his new documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities that airs Monday, Feb. 19 on PBS’ Independent Lens.

Photo: Wikimedia
Director Stanley Nelson Photo: Wikimedia

EBONY: Your first film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is the first of your America Revisited series. What made you want to cover America’s Black colleges and universities?

Stanley Nelson: One is a personal reason. My parents attended HBCUs. My mother attended Talladega, my father attended Howard; they attended in the 1930s and 40s. Those were the only colleges that were open to them and attending college changed their lives. My father became a dentist and that changed my life, and changed my kids’ lives and their kids’ lives.

Two, there’s an important story to be told, an exciting story to be told, and an emotional story to be told about Black colleges and universities. Many times, we think about Black colleges and universities, we think about the individual schools. There’s a story to be told about Howard, a story to be told about FAMU, on and on.

But I think there’s a different story to be told about this institution of Black colleges and universities, which is unique. It’s unique to the United States, it’s unique to this country, and it’s had a huge influence on African-Americans in this country, and also, this country as a whole.

Nelson attended Morris Brown College, an HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia, for one term.

EBONY: Despite it being one term, how did that personal experience help shape the movie? Or was it mostly from your parents attending HBCUs?

Nelson: In the final chapter of the film is called “Today.” One of the things we do is go back to Morris Brown, which has gone from an attendance of 2,500 students to 50. The stadium is covered with graffiti; the grass is overgrown, there’s a chain around the iconic building that was built in the 1880s, the padlock on the door. I think it’s instrumental to us saying this is what can happen to HBCUs if they’re not supported.

There has been general worry under the Trump administration about the future of historically black colleges and universities in this country. The secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, remains a controversial figure in education circles.

Last year, the Department of Education released a statement hinting that funding HBCUs is not a focus of this administration.

“Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential,” DeVos said in the statement at the time. 

EBONY: When you look at what DeVos has done [since taking office], there’s a general fear. In regards to HBCUs, how do educators, students and parents remain hopeful with what’s happening? What can they do?

Nelson: One of the things that’s happened for HBCUs, many of them have seen an increase in applications over the last few years. As this country becomes more racialized, more racist instead of less racialized. Many students are looking toward having that four years where they are free from being judged by the color of their skin, free from being the one or two black people in the classroom.

I think what has to happen is more and more we have to just rally the troops, we have to support Black colleges and universities. And that’s alumni, African-Americans, White folks, folks of all races in this country.

One of the things that has been said to me as I’ve been traveling around with this film is that one of the things that makes the African-American community unique in this country is that we’ve had this system of higher education.

Academic Class 1898 Spelman College
Academic Class 1898 Spelman College

In countries like South Africa, Brazil or other places, you didn’t have it. I think it’s one of the reasons why African-Americans in this country have been leaders around the world.

EBONY: What are some of the major differences that you’ve noticed from early attempts at education to today? What’s the most glaring similarity?

Nelson: The film travels over 150 years of African-American history and I think part of the film’s throughlines is to track the different ways and changes that African-American colleges have undergone. I think one of the central things is that these institutions when they were founded in the 1800s, the presidents and boards were largely White. As we go into the 1930s and 40s that starts to change and change, where these are all pretty much by African-Americans. So, the struggle to educate ourselves, to have freedom and education and figure what that education should be, that continues on until today.

EBONY: Looking at the education system and looking at how inner-city kids might get the short end of the stick, what does that mean for their future college prospects? If they’re lacking in something, how important is it for HBCUs to take that into consideration? 

Nelson: I think one of the things that happen in this country is that the education system is uneven across the board. Poor neighborhoods schools aren’t as good. That happens all over the country. One of the things that I feel is until we have a level playing field, until everybody in this country entering school at kindergarten or first grade, is looking forward to the same education up until high school, then that’s just another reason why we need HBCUs, why we need a place for people to go who need that nurturing and that push that HBCUs often provide.

EBONY: What can HBCUs do to combat prospective students not being able to attend because of costs? Or lack of scholarships?

I think HBCUs are already doing a huge deal to combat that. So many of the students of HBCUs are eligible for Pell grants, some of them are the first ones in their family to go to college. That’s what HBCUs provide, [They] also have lower tuitions than the majority of white institutions. I think HBCUs are doing what they can.

At this point, we have to support HBCUs, the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund are funding organizations that support HBCUs that you can contribute money to those organizations, you can contribute money to the HBCU of your choice, they all make it easy to do and I think it’s important that we do that.

EBONY: What are some advantages of attending an HBCU over a privately White institution and vice versa?

Nelson: I think that there’s advantage to both systems. If every African-American that goes to college decided to go to an HBCU tomorrow, there wouldn’t be nearly enough room. They can’t accommodate all those people. There’s reason to do both. What I would love people to do is to have the information they need to make an informed choice.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities airs Monday, Feb. 19 on PBS' Independent Lens.
Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities airs Monday, Feb. 19.

EBONY: Is that what you want people to take away from the film? 

Nelson: No. This film is not a recruiting tool. It’s not made by HBCUs; it’s not made as a recruiting tool, it was made to be a film made for the general public, to be shown on public television. We want people to be enlightened, enthralled, emotionally moved and entertained by this film. If it does something more than that, then that’s great.

EBONY: It’s Black History Month and we want to celebrate a Black pioneer. Is there an influential Black pioneer that you look up to?

Nelson: In the film Tell Them We Are Rising, I am very intrigued by W.E.B Du Bois, who plays an essential role in a couple of stories in the film, who’s just an incredible human being.

W.E.B Du Bois changed throughout his life, changed his philosophy, adjusted as times changed. I think that’s really important that we don’t become static as human beings. Du Bois is someone I really admire.

EBONY: Now that you’re done with this film, what are you looking to tackle next? What can people look forward to?

Nelson: Tell Them We Are Rising is part of a series that we’re doing. The first one was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which is available on Netflix. The third film is a film called Creating a New World about the business of the Atlantic slave trade.

Check out the trailer for Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities that airs Presidents Day, Feb.19 on PBS’ Independent Lens.