Preservation Magazine, Fall 2018

Documentary Filmmaker Stanley Nelson on the Importance of HBCUs

When filmmaker Stanley Nelson and his team began their research for a documentary on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), they uncovered a treasure trove of rarely seen photography and film footage. These archival images enrich Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, which aired on PBS in February 2018 and can be rented or purchased through PBS and other streaming platforms. We spoke with Nelson, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and multiple Emmy Award winner, about the importance of HBCU campuses.

Why did you decide to make this film?

One, it’s an important story, and I don’t know if it would be told if I didn’t tell it. So there’s that piece of it. Another thing is that my parents both went to HBCUs. HBCUs changed my life and my parents’ lives and my kids’ lives. So it’s important to me and my children.

What role do you think the campuses themselves play?

In this country, there’s no black space that compares to the campus of an HBCU. In the past few months, people have been referring to them as the original Wakanda from Black Panther. And that’s what they are, these black spaces.

Stanley Nelson discusses his documentary on HBCUs.

photo by: Firelight Media

Nelson accepting the Career Achievement Award at the 2016 IDA Documentary Awards.

Often people think these are institutions held together with string and nails. They don’t realize that these are just amazing institutions with beautiful, beautiful campuses and beautiful buildings. It’s different to be in that space. They just have a whole different feeling to them.

Recent Morgan State University graduates pose for a picture.

photo by: Morgan State University

Recent Morgan State University graduates in a still from the film.

Are there any standout HBCU campuses for you?

Well, I taught at Howard [University], and my father went there—so Howard, obviously. I also taught at Morgan State [University] and actually got an honorary degree from there [in May of 2018]. Morgan State is beautiful. I mean, FAMU [Florida A&M University] is incredible. Obviously, Clark Atlanta University is just its own thing. It’s like multi-campuses kind of right next door to each other.

But you know, one of the things I was able to do when the film was completed was, I screened it at around 20 different campuses around the country. I saw a lot of HBCUs, and I was impressed by every single one of them. I mean, there wasn’t one where I went and was like, “This is shoddy.”

Many of them started right after the Civil War. They have buildings that are almost 150 years old now. There are not only modern buildings, but there’s a history there on these campuses that you can feel.

How vital are these campuses to understanding the full history of our country?

There’s been nothing that’s helped to create and propel the black middle class as much as HBCUs. So they’ve been incredibly vital and I think they’re still vital. We have a system in education leading up to college where there’s still not an even playing field. They’re as crucial as they ever were.

A still of graduates from Atlanta University.

photo by: Atlanta University Center

A still from "Tell Them We Are Rising" shows graduates of Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University.

I think HBCUs have provided historically the only safe intellectual space that African Americans have. You know, there’s the black church, which is a black religious space, and there’s HBCUs, which [are] a black intellectual space, and I think because of that they’ve been at the forefront of so much change in this country. It’s that safe space for young, educated African Americans—college-educated—to get together and talk about the past and the way forward.

Headshot Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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