Film

Tell Them We Are Rising

The story of black colleges

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Elegantly condensing a miniseries’ worth of history into a streamlined feature, veteran documentarian Stanley Nelson’s latest work traces the century-and-a-half story of historically black colleges and universities. While the doc follows a traditional template of archival material, talking heads and impressionistic reenactments, its rich and sharply edited selection of stills, footage and new commentary makes for bracing viewing. Tell Them We Are Rising reveals the crucial role of HBCUs not only in the identity of black Americans but in the nation as a whole.

In addition to the incisive observations of historians and scholars, HCBU alumni from the 1940s through the ’70s provide firsthand accounts. Their experiences are marked by freedom, joy and struggle. Through showdowns with authorities on and off campus, they advanced the cause of civil rights—it was an HBCU graduate, Thurgood Marshall of Howard University, who tried the landmark Brown v. Education before the Supreme Court in 1954. Some confrontations ended terribly, as in the fatal shooting of students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests at Southern University in Baton Rouge, a still-unsolved case that should be more widely known. Nelson speaks with people who were part of the student demonstrations on the Louisiana campus, and for some of them the pain over the events is still acute.

Nelson and his co-writer, Marcia Smith, begin the HBCU story in the post-Civil War South and bring it up to the moment, suggesting but not naming the Black Lives Matter movement as the newest iteration in a legacy of social engagement and self-determination.

A thrilling montage of photographs of the “contraband schools” that sprung up during and after the Civil War expresses a ferocious, if wary, hope. One of the countless brutal indignities inflicted upon American slaves was that, as a group, they were denied the chance to read and write. As scholar Kimberle Crenshaw notes succinctly, “An educated black population couldn’t be an enslaved black population.”

Inevitably and paternalistically, the federal government and Christian missionary organizations descended on the South to “Yankee-fy” the schools. One historian cites the horrifying death toll of an estimated 20,000 people, blacks and whites who, during a six-year period after the war, were killed for involvement in the education of African-Americans.

In its deft sketch of the deep philosophical divide between two leading black figures of the early 20th century—Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington and intellectual firebrand W. E. B. Du Bois—the film illustrates how obstacles toward full-fledged higher academics at HBCUs gave way to an unstoppable enterprise to achieve just that. Washington, a superstar voice of white-friendly compromise, advocated vocational training for blacks as the nation’s laborers and domestic servants—while he hobnobbed with powerful industrialists. Civil rights activist DuBois, whose ideas certainly have more currency today, insisted a liberal arts curriculum should be as open to African-Americans as it is to whites. Yet in some ways their debate about black Americans’ relationship to the powers that be continues.

As to what some non-HBCU schools offered blacks, eye-opening photos show the “separate but equal” setup at the University of Oklahoma that placed a doctoral student at a desk outside the whites-only classroom. More familiar images, of lunch-counter sit-ins, are enhanced by a new interview with Joseph McNeil, a member of the Greensboro Four, the undergrads from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University who began the steadily expanding series of 1960 protests at a Woolworth’s. The film places this moment, which another HBCU alumnus remembers as “earth-shaking,” within the context of the students who put themselves on the line, by the thousand, at lunch counters around the South.

Nelson caps the film with a contemporary sequence that suggests both renewed hope and uncertain survival. With almost no discussion of the reasons for school failures, the cameras observe the abandoned and crumbling buildings of a shuttered HBCU. But others are thriving. There are exuberant and tearful scenes of moving-in day for arriving freshmen, and the affecting testimony of a couple of students who explain why attending a black university is important to them. One spent her high school years as the “token black;” the other had never before had a black teacher. From a different time and perspective, they echo the relief and excitement that alumni from decades earlier recall about the HBCU experience. Amid setbacks and challenges, the cultural heritage that began with contraband schools is still thriving, still urgent.

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