Tell Them We Are Rising, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, February 19 at 9 pm [check local listings], covers the rich history of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) from before the end of slavery through a flourishing in the 20th century to today, and how they profoundly influenced the course of the nation for over 150 years. It’s a story that remains largely unknown, yet timely, and so directors Stanley Nelson (Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) and Marco Williams (Two Towns of Jasper; Banished) set out to tell that potentially epic history in breezy, entertaining but intimate style. It also involves a lot of research and archival film and photographs to add to the power, and “elegantly condenses a miniseries’ worth of history into a streamlined feature,” wrote Sheri Linden in The Hollywood Reporter. “A robust and stirring capsule history.”

“Films such as this are essential, telling a deeper truth and inspiring further research,” adds John Fink in The Film Stage.

Nelson and Williams both spoke to us about what called to them about telling this story and how they aimed to put it together in a way that all Americans will find impactful.

Why did you want to make a film about Historic Black Colleges and Universities?

Stanley Nelson: In fundamental ways, historically Black colleges and universities form the core of the African American community. They are the engine that has driven the ascent from enslavement to the highest positions in business, government, education, science, technology and entertainment. The sacrifices made to create these institutions are significant, and are what compelled me to capture this essential chapter of American History.

Marco Williams: HBCUs are the engines of American democracy. These institutions, in the education of African Americans activate what it means to be American. I was invested in telling this story because I am committed to highlighting the fact that African American history is American history.

People often ask about is there a need for HBCUs? I always answer: why don’t we ask is there a need for PWIs (predominantly white institutions)? This answer, coupled with the viewing of the film, provides the most salient understanding of the significance and the value of these essential institutions to the creation of America.

Who do you hope your film impacts the most?

Stanley: My goal is to highlight the indisputable importance of these institutions within Black communities and invite Americans to consider how different our country might look without the existence of these institutions. I also hope this film prompts viewers to not only celebrate the legacy of HBCUs, but also reinvest in them.

Marco: To inform and to educate. For a large swath of the people living in the U.S. the four letters—HBCU, are unfamiliar. This film, through the narrating of American history, will ensure the awareness of the significance to the formation of America that these institutions of higher learning and the thousands upon thousands of alumni have made to American.

What discussions would you like people to have after they see this film? What conversations would you like to see it inspire Americans to have?

Stanley: There are so many conversations you can have, since it covers so much. The importance of education to African Americans — how that’s evolved and changed, all the history. The importance of HBCUs to this country and to the African American community.  Where should HBCUs headed in the future?  As we traveled around the country showing this film, HBCUs are really the only black intellectual space in this country, so to talk about the importance of having that. And to talk about the cultural importance of HBCUs. There’s a culture there that’s very different from the majority white culture, majority white campus culture, that exists. It’s a very different energy there, a very different aesthetic. The other thing I think that’s important to talk about is the nurturing aspect of HBCUs, how they’ve typically been a very nurturing environment for African Americans.

Marco: The conversation that I hope viewers have is to reflect, first, on the contribution of HBCU’s to the creation of the American democracy. Second, I would want them to discuss/evaluate the ongoing importance of these institutions. (I expect that some would question whether they are still necessary. The end of the film creates a context for why these institutions are still necessary.)

I would hope that the film inspires Americans to take pride in these institutions, to talk about them with friends, co-workers, children, etc. I’d welcome conversations about Booker T. Washington v. W.E.B. Dubois; I would hope some would say: I heard of Kent State, but I didn’t know about Southern University, Vorhees, Orangeburg, Howard, and all of the other HBCUs that were involved in student protest and were met with violent response from the police.

Lunch Counter Protest in North Carolina in the 1960s     
Lunch counter protest in North Carolina in the 1960s

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

Stanley: One of the biggest challenges we faced in making the film was using untested archives from schools. It was also tough at times to find the right subjects to speak about different aspects of HBCU history.

The other challenge was fitting over 150 years of history into a 90-minute film. The full story of HBCUs traces the ascendance of African Americans from slavery to the highest positions in government, business, science and the arts. Choosing which stories to include in this rich history was the biggest challenge.

Marco: I echo Stanley’s answer that the greatest challenge, for me, was which part of the one hundred and fifty-year history to tell. That we were allotted ninety minutes means that many an important story has been omitted.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Stanley: Gaining the trust of your subjects is one of the most important aspects to making a film. One of the things that helped me on this front is the body of work that I’ve done to document the African American experience. Based on this work, my subjects could tell how passionate I am about the topic in general and how much care I take in the telling of these stories. I also take time to make sure that they are comfortable and remind them how appreciative we are of their contribution.

Marco: Gaining the trust of the people in the film takes time, dedication, and honesty. One of the most impactful episodes in the film is the story of Southern University. The people who narrate this story lived it. It took a considerable effort to receive their trust. I spent many a phone call with each of them. I researched this story so that when I did speak with them, they knew that I had invested in learning about this significant experience in their life. This effort is repeated over and over and over, with scholars and with witnesses.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

Stanley: There are many things I would have loved to include in the film, if we had the opportunity. At the top of that list would be more about Black Greek Fraternities and Sororities, HBCU Sports and the issues facing HBCUs today. In addition, there are over 100 HBCUs and it would have been great to tell more of their individual stories in the film.

Marco: There are several episodes in this rich history that we scripted but did not quite work in the film—Fisk Jubilee Singers, Alcorn State University which was one of the earliest black state universities. A story that I wish we could have told was the story of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles (women’s) track team. Some of the greatest Olympians—Wilma Ruldoph for one, went to TSU. These women (and men) shifted a perception of African Americans by white America. Their achievements recast the portrait of blacks—we were Olympians; we were patriots.

grads from an HBCU in Tell Them We Are Rising

Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?

Stanley: My favorite section in the film is the section on the shooting at Southern University. I recall the impact of the Kent State murders, and the media coverage it commanded, but most Americans know nothing about the murder of two students on Southern’s campus during that same time period. It was a powerful story, and one that I think the whole country should know.

I recall the impact of the Kent State murders, and the media coverage it commanded, but most Americans know nothing about the murder of two students on Southern’s campus during that same time period.Marco: I am most proud of the Southern University section for the reasons Stanley references. Few Americans are aware of the number of instances in which African American students protested, were brutalized by the police, and were killed, for the act of standing up to challenge the system. When I learned of these stories, I knew that they had to be in our film.

Was there anything you learned while researching and making this film that really surprised you?

Stanley: I didn’t know anything about the killings at Southern University. I was so surprised to learn about these killings that were caught on camera. Had never seen any of that.  And also the central role that black colleges have played in so many important events in the United States.

95% of African Americans who graduated college before the mid-to-late 60s graduated from HBCUs. Anyone from Martin Luther King to W. E. B. Du Bois all graduated from black colleges. They’ve been central and crucial to African American life in this country. Crucial to life in general.  

Marco: I think the biggest surprise twist was that the challenge to and dismantling of segregation in the United States was instituted and achieved by members of the Howard Law School. This change, ultimately, has had a marked effect on HBCUs. Now black students have more options for where to attend college then they did prior to the 1960s. Now black scholars and academics have more options on where to teach. Similar to the impact that desegregation had on black communities—many great black middle-class neighborhoods declined once blacks could shop wherever they wanted. HBCUs have been effected. A pyrrhic victory of sorts?

How do we invest and nurture HBCUs?  

Stanley: I’m often asked by audiences what can they do to ensure HBCUs thrive. I encourage them to invest in these institutions, either directly, or to scholarships for students to attend HBCUs. Organizations like United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund help ensure these schools remain an option for students who desperately desire access to higher education but who may not have the means to afford college.

If you had to pick any one historic “star” from the HBCU story that you think would make a great documentary subject of their own, who would you choose?  

Stanley: W.E.B. Du Bois is just a fascinating, fascinating character and there’s so much in his life, the twists and turns of his life are just incredible. To me he’s a remarkable individual who was essential to so many things in African American life for 60 years. Incredible human being. And we didn’t get into a tenth of it in the film. He goes to Africa and becomes a socialist. Just an amazing guy, with so many other stories.

Marco: I am not sure I’d call this person a star, but he is a fantastic representative of HBCUs and a commitment to them. I am speaking of Cleveland Sellers. He went to Howard. He was a significant part of the Civil Rights Movement, a member of SNCC. He was with Stokley Carmichael when Stokley intoned: black power. Sellers was at the Orangeburg Massacre (South Carolina State University); he was the only person arrested even though three black students were killed by the police. He served seven months. Sellers in later years became the president of Vorhees College.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Stanley: The three docs that are most impactful to me right now are 13th by Ava DuVernay, I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck, and OJ: Made in America by Ezra Edelman. In their own ways, they each speak to the persistent dialogue between racism and resistance in this country — and they do so in masterful ways.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

Stanley: My next project is a multi-part series on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It’s the last installment of America Revisited, our three-film series on under-explored aspects of American history. The first in the series was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

Marco: I’m involved with finishing a film about the only successful hijacking of an Air Canada airliner, which occurred in 1971 and was the act of a member of The Republic for New Africa. I am also editing a documentary—From the Bullet to the Ballot, about an African American Muslim mother whose youngest son was murdered. She runs for state office to address the rampant gun violence on the streets of her West Philadelphia neighborhood.