We caught up with Nelson, who recently previewed his film in Atlanta, and talked with him about trying to strike the right tone in telling the story of one of the nation’s cornerstone institutions.
AJC: You begin not with the first educational institutions, but with the period of African-American enslavement. Why was it important to start there?
Nelson: One of the things I knew going in was that we wanted to set up early on was the period of slavery and what the denial of an education during that time had done to later generations. This is the frame on which this story stood.
1. The Celebration Bowl is a post-season showdown between D-I HBCUs. 2. It has been played twice at the Georgia Dome and will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this year. 3. It provides a "first-class bowl experience" while celebrating HBCU history. 4. The game traces its roots to the first black intercollegiate game in 1892. 5. In 2015, the first Celebration Bowl, North Carolina A&T beat Alcorn State 41-34.
AJC: The film is not kind to Booker T. Washington, the famed founder of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. In fact, one scholar quoted in the film says that in establishing the school, he sought to create a form of “neo-slavery,” that would make white people comfortable and black people subservient.
Nelson: Well, what do you want me to say? What Booker T. was saying was not exactly wrong, in that black people needed skills to survive after Emancipation. But he was talking about skills, not an education where they could compete. What happened was that message was taken up by Southern planters and Northern aristocrats, and they began to pour money into the school.
AJC: So many people talk about the massacre at Kent State University, a predominantly white institution, and its iconic place in the history of the anti-Vietnam War movement. The National Guard was called in and shot students. But not many people know about the massacre at Southern University, an HBCU in Baton Rouge, which you highlight. Two students were shot dead by state police during a protest demanding a greater say in university policymaking.
Nelson: We decided we could tell a story of students looking inward in order to show the changes going on outside the school affecting the country as a whole. There's this idea traditionally that black colleges have administrations that are conservative. But students are progressive and it's students who pulled institutions forward like Southern. That's the role of students at black colleges: to get an education and push for equality in this country.
Vintage photo of Howard University students, featured in the new documentary by Stanley Nelson about HBCUs, “Tell Them We Are Rising.” CONTRIBUTED BY BETTMANN ARCHIVE
AJC: There are people to this day who think that if a student attends an HBCU, they might not be strong students or that HBCUs aren’t academically rigorous.
Nelson: People are welcome to their feelings, but I don't care. For the people in the know, there is not this misconception. Apple and other big corporations, they have relationships with these HBCUs and they know the talent is there. They see it and they invest in it.
AJC: How did you pick which schools to feature?
Nelson: It was more that we were choosing stories. With 130 or so schools, we can't cover all of them. We can't even come close. So, let's tell stories and we'll come up with a feeling of what HBCUs are all about.
“Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities,” 9 p.m. Monday, GPB