The history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including those in South Carolina, is the subject of a film featured Monday night on PBS.
Emmy Award-winning director Stanley Nelson said, prior to the 1960s, HBCUs were the only place an African-American could get a college education. “Any African-American who went to college before the 1960s, 95 percent of them went to a black college or university,” he said. “They were responsible for the (education) system in the South.”
The documentary Tell Them We Are Rising tells the story of the development of African-American education from slavery to present. It features historic photos and films from HBCUs across the South.
“They are incredibly important and still are important today,” Nelson said.
He said African-Americans also contributed to the education of all children in the South, “The demands made for freed African-Americans after the Civil War to be educated are largely responsible for the public school education that existed in the South for both whites and blacks. Because the planter elite in the South not only didn’t want African-Americans to be educated. They didn’t want poor white people to be educated.”
The documentary also argues HBCUs created the African-American middle class and launched the Civil Rights movement. The landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case was initiated at Howard University and students at North Carolina A&T started the sit-in movement.
“So much of the Civil Rights Movement was launched at black universities,” he said.
Nelson said there’s still a need for HBCUs today.
“If this country was through with racism and racialism and there was a level playing field in grade schools and junior highs and high schools, then maybe you could look at it and say, ‘Okay, we don’t need HBCUs anymore,'” he said.
Nelson said HBCUs are needed more than ever.
“They are the only intellectual space that African-Americans have and as such, they have served to be centers of so many of the important movements that have happened in this country,” he said.
Nelson said he was pleased with the reaction the film got at the Sundance Film Festival last year. He said an almost all-white audience gave the film a standing ovation.
“People were crying and applauding,” he said.
Tell Them We are Rising airs Monday, February 19 on PBS Independent Lens at 9 p.m. This link includes a discussion for people who attended HBCUs.
South Carolina is home to several HBCUs, including Allen University, Benedict University, Claflin University, Clinton Junior College, Friendship University, Morris College, South Carolina State University and Voorhees College.