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February 16, 2018

Old School Ties

The newest project from a distinguished documentarian illuminates the history of HBCUs.

Paula Chin
  • Early-20th-century graduates of Atlanta University, which later merged with Clark College to become Clark Atlanta University

    Atlanta University Cneter
  • Stanley Nelson

    Nola Nelson and Tariq Thompson

When Stanley Nelson was looking for ideas for a new documentary, he didn’t have to look far.

The topic turned out to be close to home for the filmmaker, whose awards include Emmys, a Peabody and a MacArthur “genius grant.”

In Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities, which debuts on PBS on February 19, Nelson explores the pivotal role those historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have played in American history, culture and national identity — something he knows personally.

“My mother attended Talladega College and my father went to Howard University, so HBCUs were always on my radar,” he says. “For generations, they were the only place our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents could go.” (Nelson graduated from City College of New York.)

He unearthed a treasure trove of photographs that had been preserved by the schools, some of which were founded before the Civil War. “This was amazing material that no one had mined,” he says. “I was moved to tears by those pictures, especially of the first graduating classes, who might have started their lives in slavery. The look of pride in their eyes was incredible.”

In addition to archival documents, letters and diaries, Nelson felt it was essential to include first-person accounts and voices. “Not surprisingly, people have stayed connected to their schools, so we were able to plug into those networks to find men and women who could talk about how HBCUs were a defining part of their lives.”

The schools offered far more than an education. An incubator of doctors, lawyers, teachers and judges throughout the 1930s and ’40s, HBCUs were also a safe haven where students could talk about issues affecting their community — and how to fight peacefully for change. 

By the 1950s, the campuses had become the center of the black civil rights movement, where “the ground was ripe to challenge segregation,” Nelson  says. “There was an atmosphere of energy and urgency.”

The documentary includes an interview with Joseph McNeil, one of the North Carolina A&T students who sat at a whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s in 1960. They became known as the Greensboro Four.

The film also presents harrowing accounts of bloody confrontations with police at Jackson State in 1970 and Southern University in 1972: four black students were killed, but their deaths received far less coverage than the shootings at Kent State.

“I wanted a montage of voices from different schools to show how these demonstrations swept the South, how instrumental the HBCUs were in the formation of protest movements across the country, and the sacrifices these students made. They changed history.”

The film couldn’t be more relevant. “I figured it would be timely whenever we got it out there, but it’s been more so than I could have  imagined,” Nelson says. “There has been an uptick in applications to HBCUs  in the wake of the well-publicized aggressions at majority white colleges.

Young black people are just looking for a safe intellectual space where they can become thinking adults.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018

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