February 15, 2018

New PBS documentary tells the story of HBCUs

Many Americans only know Historically Black Colleges and Universities — if they know them at all — for their energetic marching bands, or as the setting for 90s sitcom A Different World.  

That is a problem, according to Marybeth Gasman, Director of Penn GSE’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

"Most people don't know what a Black college is, and that makes it easier for their role to get airbrushed out of American history," Gasman said. "Black colleges are an incubator for Black intellectual thought, Black culture, and Black history. If you don't have Black colleges, you don't have the legal team that wins Brown v. the Board of Ed. Most of the writers and artists we associate with the Harlem Renaissance went to Black colleges."

She hopes a new documentary from acclaimed director Stanley Nelson will start a new conversation about what HBCUs have done, and what they continue to do.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, which premieres at 9 pm Monday, February 19 on PBS’s Independent Lens, traces the story of educating Black Americans from slavery through to students on campus today. It is the second feature in Nelson’s America Revisited trilogy. The first, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, was the most watched program in Independent Lens history.

This is the first documentary to capture the full story of HBCUs, according to Penn GSE’s Gasman, whose expertise is highlighted in the film. Gasman is a nationally renowned historian of higher education and the country's foremost scholar of Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).

"Stanley Nelson is documenting history in a way that can't be denied while also showing that Black colleges are doing some of their most important and relevant work right now," Gasman said.

To piece together his film, Nelson and his team spent years digging through archival material. He found HBCUs could give a portrait of 19th-century Black life that is rarely seen because, Nelson said, “they weren’t taking pictures of Black folks. They just weren’t.”

But they were taking photos at HBCUs. Those class photos, and the stories behind them, gave Nelson a way to introduce the first generation of Black professionals, show the emergence of the Black middle class, and show how campus life changed art, politics, law, business, and culture in America.

The film isn’t staid history. In turns, it is emotional and funny.

There is a need to tell this story now, Nelson said.

 “I do think because of the charged racial climate right now in our country, it’s important to tell our history, the history that got us here,” Nelson said. “If you go all the way back, it was illegal to educate Black folks. That’s where we’re starting from.”

The documentary comes out at a time when critics are asking if HBCUs are still necessary, and the financial difficulties of a few HBCUs have become significant stories in higher education. That only makes Nelson’s movie more relevant, Gasman said.

The documentary reveals that critics have always challenged the need for Black colleges, and the success of HBCUs has come despite their lack of resources compared to their predominantly white counterparts. The final chapter of the film follows current students at HBCUs, including two women who chose HBCUs Florida A&M and Spelman over some of the most prestigious predominately white institutions in the country.

Gasman said many viewers will leave the documentary wondering why this is the first time they heard of the society-shaping work of HBCUs that continues today.

"At Spelman, where 50 percent of students are on Pell grants, 76 percent of Black women graduate," Gasman said. "Why isn't all of American higher education trying to understand what Spelman is doing right?"