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'Independent Lens' Documentary Looks at Historically Black Colleges, Universities

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Historically Black Colleges and Universities—know as HBCUs—were in the news last year during disputes over the Trump administration's initiative to help the institutions.

That controversy, which arguably revolved around the sincerity of the administration's commitment, was perhaps too recent or too wonky to appear in a new documentary about the 150-year history of HBCUs that airs on the public television show "Independent Lens" on Monday, Feb. 19, at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific time (check local listings).

"Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities" is an engaging, fast-moving, 80-minute history of HBCUs by filmmakers Stanley Nelson ("Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" and "Freedom Summer") and Marco Williams ("Banished" and "Freedom Summer").

In some ways the documentary is also the story of precollegiate education of African-Americans in the United States. The story starts with the tradition of slaveowners keeping their slaves from learning to read and write.

"An educated black population could not be an enslaved black population," Kimberlé Crenshaw, the executive director of the African American Policy Forum, says in the documentary.

The film, which makes excellent use of archival materials such as photographs, film, and documents, discusses "contraband schools" opened in the North during the Civil War for escaped slaves, then moves to basic schools opened during Reconstruction, including those of the American Missionary Association and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The documentary tells the story of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute, and his support from white philanthropists who gained comfort from Washington's focus on basic and vocational education, with the message to whites that black people would be their laborers.

Of course, W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Washington's view, and by the early 20th century a growing number of black colleges were educating their students for professions such as teaching, engineering, and medicine. By the 1930s and 1940s, HBCUs were helping to create a black middle class in America.

At Howard University, new law dean Charles Hamilton Houston, the first African-American in the position, teamed with Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP on the strategy to press to make separate education for blacks truly equal, confident that the fight would eventually lead the courts to hold that separate was inherently unequal, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Meanwhile, HBCUs were building social traditions in music, Greek life, and athletics. But by the 1960s, it was students from these institutions who led the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South. My favorite comment in the film is from a now much-more mature student who participated in such sit-ins and eventually won the right to be served.

"When I was finally served at that counter, I thought it was by far one of the lousiest meals I have ever had," the man says with a smile. "I thought, 'Is this what I put myself on the line for?'"

The documentary spends time recounting a protest at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., during the early 1970s that led to the death of a student by police bullet, an incident that is not as well known as, say, the National Guard shootings that killed four students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio.

The film devotes its last 10 minutes to HBCUs today. (Just over 100 federally recognized institutions enroll about 300,000 students.) Some are thriving and some have closed or are in challenging conditions.

The documentary visits Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which once enrolled 2,500 students and housed an office for Du Bois (who taught at Atlanta University). It now has 40 or 50 enrolled students.

"The future for black colleges is actually contested at this point," Crenshaw says in the film.

But the film also captures the excitement of families moving their children into stronger institutions such as Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and Spelman College in Atlanta.

Going to an HBCU means "going to a safe space," says a freshman moving into Spelman, who says she was one of the few African-American students in her high school and is now happy to be among a sea of students who look like her.

In an interview on the Independent Lens website, filmmakers Nelson and Williams say there was so much more they would have liked to include in the film, such as more about sports traditions and stories of individual institutions.

A longer film would have been welcome, even if a controversy over a White House initiative to help HBCUs still didn't make the cut.

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