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How historically black colleges level the playing field

Independent lens tells the story of this country’s historically black colleges. ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ airs tonight on Independent Lens.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight at 9p.m. on most PBS stations, "Independent Lens" tells the story of this country's historically black colleges.

    Jeffrey Brown is here with a preview.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    "Tell Them We Are Rising" is the story of the nation's historically black colleges and universities, commonly known as HBCUs.

    The film charts their rise and pivotal role in producing generations of professional and middle-class African-Americans and looks at threats to their continuing prominence, even in some cases their existence.

    Stanley Nelson is the film's director.

    Welcome to you.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    Thank you so much.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Why take this on?

    I gather it's at least partly personal.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    Well, it's a very important story.

    But, also, my parents went to HBCUs, both in the 1930s. My mother went to Talladega in Alabama. My father went to Howard in Washington, D.C.

    And there's no way they would have gone to college if it wasn't for HBCUs. So, HBCUs changed the trajectory of their lives. It changed my life. It will change my kids' life, on down through the generations. So it's been very important to me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There's a historian early in the film who says the question for African-Americans has always been, what is the purpose of education, who controls it, what is the relationship of education to the broader aspirations of our people?

    You are presenting in the film these colleges as the answers to that.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    Yes.

    And I think one of the things that the film does is kind of ask that question and then answer it. You see, as HBCUs have gone through their history, how that's changed, how who controls our education has changed, how what it's for has changed, and how so many times it's been the students actually at HBCUs who have changed what education is for.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Let's take a look. We have a short clip that shows some of the impact it had.

  • Dorothy Smith:

    If a teacher saw you kind of slipping or faltering, there was a, what's going on, what's the matter? Can I help? There was a watching over you to see that you did the best you could.

  • Marybeth Gasman:

    Black colleges were educating future doctors and future lawyers and future teachers and nurses and judges. And they were responsible for lifting African-Americans out of poverty, and they started to create the black middle class as we know it.

  • James Anderson:

    For a black child, every teacher that you knew had gone to a black college. Every lawyer that you knew had gone to a black college. Every medical doctor that treated you had gone to a black college.

  • Michael Lomax:

    Black colleges were redefining what it meant to be black in America. You weren't doing something with your hands. You were pursuing a career where education and intellect mattered.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That part goes to a period where there were really almost no other choices, right?

  • Stanley Nelson:

    Right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But one of the other aspects that you bring out is these colleges as incubators of social change, right, the places where leaders and movements began.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    Yes, but I think that's one of the important functions that HBCUs have served so many times.

    So, we talk about the sit-in movement that started at North Carolina A&T. We talk about the fight to get to Brown vs. Board of Ed, to send segregation. That started in Howard — the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, all of these things. Martin Luther King came out of an HBCU.

    So, yes, they have been this kind of safe intellectual space for African-Americans, because this is a place where young black people can sit around and talk about the future and where we're going.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What was life like on these campuses that differed from other universities? What made them?

  • Stanley Nelson:

    Well, I think one of the things that made and still makes HBCUs different is that they are a nurturing environment.

    You know, like, for my own father, who was the first — he and his brother were the first people in his family to graduate high school. And my father went to Howard University just because he lived in D.C., and it was there, and he went to Howard.

    And he's there, and someone comes up to him and says, what are you doing? You're fooling around. You can do this. Stop goofing around.

    My father then went on to graduate Howard, and then went to Howard Dental School, became a successful dentist. And that's one of the reasons why I'm sitting here today.

    But it's that nurturing, that — as we saw in the clip, it's that nurturing that's so important that HBCUs have provided and still provide today.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That students might not have gotten elsewhere.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    No.

    I think that that is a very different kind of attitude than a lot of times you get at majority white institutions, which is, like, well, you got here, and so you belong here. And so, here's the work. Do it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right. Now do it.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    Now do it.

    HBCUs, it's a little bit different. It's, like, we are here to help you and to help you do this work, because we know you can do it because we might have been in the same position that you are.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You do get at the situation today with many black colleges struggling.

    And there's still a debate, I guess, over to what extent they are needed, what role they play today. What did you conclude after doing this?

  • Stanley Nelson:

    Well, I think that one of the ways to look at it is that, until racism, until racialism, until we — ends in this country, until we have kind of a level playing field for kids in grade school and junior high and high school, that we need HBCUs, right.

    That's one way to look at it. Another way, one of the things that people who work with HBCUs will tell you is, like, we still have Catholic universities, right?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    And nobody's questioning that. We still have Yeshiva. Nobody is questioning that. And so…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We still have women's colleges.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    We still have women's colleges.

    So, I think that that's really not a — really a real question at this point. I think we need HBCUs, maybe not as much as we did in 1865, but we still need them very much today.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the film is "Tell Them We Are Rising."

    Stanley Nelson, thank you very much.

  • Stanley Nelson:

    I thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    "Tell Them We Are Rising" airs tonight on most PBS stations.

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