Tell Them We Are Rising: The Role of HBCUs

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l-r; Veonie McKinnie, retired Fisk administrator; Dr. Kevin Rome, Sr., Fisk’s 16th president, Linda Spears, TSU administrator Photo by Earl Flippen, Jr.

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN — People who have attended a historically black college or university (HBCU) are invited to become a part of an online digital yearbook documenting their experience as a part of a project linked to Stanley Nelson’s latest documentary “Tell Them We are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.”

The award winning and acclaimed filmmaker and producer came to Nashville’s Belcourt Theater last week to screen his riveting portrayal of 170-year history and impact of HBCUs like Fisk, Tennessee State University, Howard University and others. Nelson’s film was screened to a group of black professionals and supporters at the Belcourt as part of a fundraiser for Fisk University. Fisk University’s interim president Dr. Frank Sims and incoming president Dr. Kevin Rome and “Tennessee Tribune” publisher Rosetta Perry welcomed the filmmaker.

“Tell Them We Are Rising” documents how HBCUs served mostly as a safe space and incubator for black student talent during the years of segregation through the present. The film also includes some shocking scenes from a student uprising at Southern University in Louisiana in November of 1972 where two students in a group who were protesting inadequate funding by state government were gunned down by police – two years after the more widely reported Kent State shootings.

Stanley Nelson’s documentaries have been a successful part of contemporary history in documentary form. His television series “The Freedom Riders,” “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” “Wounded Knee,” “Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords,” and others have chronicled the history of black people to wide audiences in the US and beyond.

Whether HBCUs have a healthy future was the topic of a panel discussion following the film with Stanley Nelson, Dr. Michael Lomax, who is CEO and President of The United Negro College Fund and Vicky Yates from News Channel 5.

“I hope this is not the take away from this film – that the future of HBCUs is fading.  Rather, as Michael Lomax says, it is contested.  You see the young women [interviewed in the film] who are choosing to go to HBCUs and how they said it is a safe space for them to be themselves, “said Nelson.

Nelson taught film production at Howard University and his parents went to HBCUs. Nelson’s mother went to Talladega.

“Some of my father’s friends told my father to go to Howard. They said he was wasting his talent and there were a lot of pretty girls there, so he went.  He became a dentist and he gave me the life I had.”

Dr. Michael Lomax contrasted the history of HBCUs with segregated all-white schools both public and private.

“HBCUS have never been segregated. These campuses were where blacks and white students worked together as peers, and they also have been open to other ethnicities,” said Dr. Lomax.

Lomax, Nelson and Dr. Kevin Rome, Fisk’s new university president all said that the black community should understand the role of HBCUs as a “black intellectual space” where both faculty and students can freely explore their ideas and interests.

“We have to become the army to be sure that not just old folks see this film, but young folks too so they see they can see they can get a great education and fulfill themselves intellectually, socially and spiritually,” said Dr. Lomax.

Stanley Nelson encouraged audience members to contribute memories, photos, diaries, letters from their experience as college students at HBCUs as part of an online archive at www.hbcurising.com at the “submit your story” link.  Updates on film screenings can be found by texting the numbers 555-888 and enter “HBCUrising” or following #HBCURising on Twitter.

The film is slated to be shown on Independent Lens series on PBS most likely in February, said Nelson.

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