Episode 153: Outstanding New Documentary on HBCUs

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It is officially March, and I feel that we have done all we can for the Class of 2022.  Before we head into advice for the Class of 2023, we are going to do a few episodes on things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally.  As we have always said, we learn something every time we do an episode, even though this is our business and we have been doing it a very long time.

Today’s episode focuses on a favorite topic of ours here at USACollegeChat–that is, our nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  We have spotlighted HBCUs in several of our episodes over the years (Episodes 32, 90, 100, and 117), and we mentioned them on many of our episodes that took you on our virtual nationwide tour of colleges quite some time ago.  And while we will give you some background and some statistics in this episode, for those of you who are not familiar with HBCUs, the real purpose of the episode today is to praise the new documentary on HBCUs that recently aired on PBS’s Independent Lens series.  The documentary, entitled Tell Them We Are Rising, is the work of filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams.  And it is fantastic!

As our regular listeners know, there are just over 100 HBCUs in the U.S.  About half are public, and half are private.  HBCUs are large and small (many are very small), faith-based and not, two-year and four-year colleges and universities; some also have graduate and professional schools, including the well-known Howard University School of Law, which is the focus of one segment of the new documentary.

HBCUs were originally founded to serve black students who had been excluded from other higher education institutions because of their race.  The three earliest HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War, but many were founded in the South shortly after the Civil War.  Those Southern HBCUs share a proud tradition of becoming the first colleges to provide higher education to the family members of freed slaves.  Over the years, HBCUs have produced extraordinary leaders in every field of endeavor and thousands and thousands of well-educated American citizens.  A list of their famous graduates would be too long to read to you.

1.  Why Watch?

So, why should your kids (and you) watch this documentary?  (If you can’t still find it on the air on PBS or streaming on the PBS website, buy it or tell your high school to buy it and show it to all of the students.)  There are a lot of reasons to watch.  First, it is a great piece of documentary filmmaking.  It includes take-your-breath-away and heartbreaking archival photographs and film of black American life during segregation and during the end of segregation.  It includes archival photographs and film of HBCU students on campus going back a hundred years, including the horrifying 1972 shooting of two students in an otherwise peaceful protest on the campus of Southern University (in Baton Rouge, Louisiana); more about that later.  It includes insightful interviews with former HBCU students now in their 70s and 80s, with HBCU presidents, with historians, and more.  It includes evocative and relevant music.

Second, the film gives an impressively organized overview of 150 years of African-American history, focusing on higher education in the form of HBCUs, but including everything from the beginning of elementary education for black children to the debate about the education philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to the role of the remarkable Thurgood Marshall (who graduated from both Lincoln University and Howard University School of Law, two HBCUs) in ending school segregation to the lunch counter sit-in protests staged by HBCU college students during the struggle for civil rights.  If your kid does not know this history (and many don’t), here is a powerful way to help him or her learn it.

Third, if your kid does not know what an HBCU is, it is time your kid learned.  That is especially true if your family is African American–or Hispanic, because Hispanic enrollment at HBCUs has been increasing (as we have said in earlier episodes).  And while white students can and do also enroll at HBCUs, white students should also have an understanding of these historic institutions and their continuing important role in our nation’s social and cultural fabric.  We have heard too many anecdotes (including in this documentary) of black high school students who want to go to an HBCU only to have their friends ask them why in the world they would want to do that.  Early in the film, HBCUs are described as an “unapologetic black space.”  Late in the film, they are described as the place where “you’ll find something you won’t find anywhere else.”  That’s why.  No one could have said it better.

2.  Some Background

If you all thought that you were going to get away without hearing one more time about my favorite HBCU, Fisk University, you were wrong.  Oddly enough, in a PBS interview by Craig Phillips with the filmmakers, Mr. Williams said that they had written a segment, which they did not end up using, about the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.  The Jubilee Singers, organized in 1871, saved the University from closing in its early days by raising money on their concert tours, and they continue to tour today.  I love their story.  And, of course, there is Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance, who served as Fisk’s first black president, and the Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, like Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, and Aaron Douglas, whom he brought to Fisk to work with him.  Well, Mr. Williams, I would love to have seen your segment on the Jubilee Singers, though I was interested in the segment you do have on Fisk.  And you all should be, too.

As we just said, today HBCUs enroll students who are not black–just as historically white colleges and universities (referred to as predominantly white institutions, or PWIs) now enroll students who are not white.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015, students who were not black made up 22 percent of the enrollment at HBCUs.  That was up from 15 percent back in 1976.  And while the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent in those years?which was good for them?total college enrollment rose by 81 percent in those same years.

Some observers say that it has become harder for HBCUs to recruit African-American students now that they have been welcome at both selective and nonselective colleges across the U.S.  That is undoubedly true to some degree.

Nonetheless, there is still a strong sense of community among the alumni/alumnae of HBCUs and a strong sense of tradition on HBCU campuses.  You can see that in the new documentary, for sure.  And there have been very recent and impressive spikes in HBCU applications, as we said back in Episode 100.  For some African-American students, the sense of community at HBCUs could be a good fit for what they are looking for in a college, and a shared culture could go a long way toward helping them feel comfortable on a college campus, especially if it is far from home.  Some observers say that Hispanic students often feel more comfortable in the family-like environment of many HBCUs, which could account, in part, for the increase in Hispanic enrollment.

And, parents, in case you are interested, lower-than-average tuition rates at both public and private HBCUs (sometimes literally half of the going rate at PWIs) are one more attractive feature.  Just go check out a few.  I think you will be surprised.

So, if you and your kid are tempted to investigate further after watching Tell Them We Are Rising, here are some HBCUs to consider (some you will probably know, and some you might not know):

And there are plenty more.

3.  What We Didn’t Know

So, let me return for a moment to the shooting at Southern University, which I am embarrassed to say I knew nothing about.  I would like to think that is because I myself was just a college student in those days, but that is really no excuse.  Here is an excellent synopsis of what happened, as told last month by reporter Mike Scott, of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, on the occasion of the documentary’s airing on PBS:

Forty-five years after two Southern University students were shot dead by police who had been sent in [to] quash weeks of demonstrations on the school’s Baton Rouge campus–which included occupation of the university president’s office–the 1972 incident is once more getting attention.

The documentary Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will make its broadcast premiere Monday night (Feb. 19) on PBS–and online a day later?.  In addition to starting with a drum cadence by the Southern University drum corps, the 85-minute film features a 10-minute segment on the Southern [University] shootings, which are brought to life through interviews, photos and video–and which vividly, and poignantly, illustrate the on-campus tumult at HBCUs in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“They were exercising their constitutional rights. And they get killed for it. They die,” former student Michael Cato says in the film of the slain students. “Nobody sent their child to school to die. It shouldn’t have happened.”

The Southern shootings took place Nov. 16, 1972, after weeks of demonstrations by students protesting inadequate services. When the students marched on University President Leon Netterville’s office, Gov. Edwin Edwards sent 300 police officers in to break up the demonstrations.

It was during the subsequent confrontation that a still-unidentified officer fired a shotgun at students in violation of orders. When the smoke cleared, two 20-year-old students–Leonard Brown and Denver Smith–were dead.

No one was ever charged in their deaths. Edwards, who is interviewed in Tell Them We Are Rising, blamed the students, saying their actions were a “trigger” for the police response.

In 2017, the Southern University System board’s academic affairs committee voted to award Brown and Smith posthumous degrees.  (quoted from the article)

The documentary shows the actual shots being fired and the bodies of the two students being taken away.  It includes a touching interview with the sister of one of those students.  It tells a story that all of us should know.

4.  Final Thoughts

In an interview for PBS with the filmmakers, writer Craig Phillips asked why they had wanted to make a film about HBCUs.  Here are their answers:

Stanley Nelson: In fundamental ways, historically Black colleges and universities form the core of the African American community. They are the engine that has driven the ascent from enslavement to the highest positions in business, government, education, science, technology and entertainment. The sacrifices made to create these institutions are significant, and are what compelled me to capture this essential chapter of American History.

Marco Williams: HBCUs are the engines of American democracy. These institutions, in the education of African Americans activate what it means to be American. I was invested in telling this story because I am committed to highlighting the fact that African American history is American history.

People often ask about is there a need for HBCUs? I always answer: why don’t we ask is there a need for PWIs (predominantly white institutions)? This answer, coupled with the viewing of the film, provides the most salient understanding of the significance and the value of these essential institutions to the creation of America.  (quoted from the article)

Mr. Nelson goes on to say this:

My goal is to highlight the indisputable importance of these institutions within Black communities and invite Americans to consider how different our country might look without the existence of these institutions. I also hope this film prompts viewers to not only celebrate the legacy of HBCUs, but also reinvest in them.  (quoted from the article)

I think that the film will absolutely do that.  I think it is hard to watch it and not want to go to an HBCU.  Remember, parents, that HBCUs come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are well known, and others are not.  But their history as a group and as individual institutions is remarkable, as Tell Them We Are Rising teaches all of us.

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