Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, a new documentary directed by Stanley Nelson, chronicles not only the history of African-American higher education, but also the importance of education in the fight for Civil Rights in America from slavery to today.
The film, which airs on PBS Feb. 19, debuts on Blu-ray Disc ($29.99), DVD ($24.99) and Digital HD Feb. 20 from PBS Distribution.
The film begins before the end of slavery.
“I felt that it was really important that we start the story in the time of enslavement, because I thought that the framework of the story was that there was a time where African-Americans were forbidden by law to learn to read and write, where African-Americans were forbidden by law to be educated or educate themselves,” Nelson said. “Only if you start there do a lot of the other pieces of the story make sense.”
As black schools and colleges developed, two leading figures in black education espoused different philosophies, a conflict covered in the documentary. Booker T. Washington, a former slave from the south who became head of a black college and a popular spokesperson, espoused “industrial” education, but W.E.B. Du Bois, a Harvard-educated intellectual from Massachusetts, didn’t agree with Washington’s plan to merely teach trades.
“These were great personalities that represented — at that point coming out of the first generation out of slavery — two paths for the education for African-Americans,” Nelson said.
Washington can be looked at as a pragmatist, Nelson said, but his ideas were dangerous.
“It played into what the northern industrialists were looking for,” Nelson said. “They were looking for an educated workforce, but not too educated. They had to be able to read the sign that said ‘explosives’ but they didn’t want them to read much else.”
Du Bois and his allies wanted an equal education, but it had to be built from the ground up. Black colleges often developed from grade schools and high schools that began to add classes as their students progressed. Finding teachers was hard. Still, many of the most talented black graduates found a place in black colleges.
“Black professors couldn’t teach anywhere except black colleges,” Nelson noted. “That served black colleges very well, with a wonderful faculty.”
Black colleges also helped focus movements after World War I, when black soldiers who experienced a new viewpoint abroad, found the same old oppression at home. They also became an incubator for the Civil Rights movement, playing an important role in the Brown v. Board of Education case to end school segregation (argued by lawyers from Howard University) and in the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides of the 1960s.
“Black colleges became this hotbed of change,” Nelson said.
Today, many black colleges are struggling with change, but are finding a new enthusiasm from young people, in part because of recent political events and movements, Nelson said.
“This country is much more racialized than it was a very few years ago,” Nelson said. “It was just eight years ago when they were talking about a post-racial society. Nobody is talking about a post-racial society now.”
Black colleges also offer a unique environment.
“There’s this feeling that for young African-Americans that we want to live in a space that’s safe for four years,” Nelson said. “We want to live in a space where we’re not judged solely on our race or looked at as a black person or the black person every time we enter a room. We want to have a safe intellectual space where we can talk to other African-Americans about what’s going on in our world and in our country.”