Historically considered bastions of academic achievement for the black community, the image of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has declined over the past few years as questions regarding their stability and viability with declining enrollments and retention-graduation rates has risen.

A new documentary, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black College and Universities”, airing on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series Monday, Feb. 19, will give viewers the opportunity to understand the impact and continued influence of HBCUs. Stanley Nelson, director of the film, hopes this documentary will provide a comprehensive view into what makes HBCUs so important.

“They have been very central to making change. If you do not know anything about black colleges, you will learn a lot,” Nelson told NBC News.

 Filmmaker Stanley Nelson at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22, 2017 in Park City, Utah. Jeff Vespa / WireImage Via Getty Images

The documentary sheds light on acts and events that took place during 179 years of American history from slavery to present day, such as when teaching a slave how to read and write was a punishable offense.

“We go along to tell story of Booker T. Washington in a new way, including the founding of Tuskegee,” Nelson said. “Mainly there are stories that most people do not know. The killing of students at Southern University by law enforcement in 1972, which there is actual footage. We talk to students who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Woolworth sit-ins by students at North Carolina A & T, and we also talk a little about Morris Brown College.”

There is a good bit of the history, told in chapters. But, Nelson said, telling the story of HBCU’s was not an easy fete.

“You cannot talk about every single story, every single HBCU, every single moment in its history. We had to figure out a lot,” he said, but added that the project has also been exciting. “It took five years of thinking about the film, raising money for the film, and two and a half years of production to get it made and done.”


According to a November report by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), there is still great value to HBCUs. The report, suggests that HBCUs contribute almost $15 billion annually in economic impact.

“HBCUS are not just providing degrees and employing tens of thousands of people,” Dr. Brian Bridges, UNCF vice president of research and members engagement told NBC News. “Most people are not aware of how HBCUs drive economic impact. They produce 134,000 jobs. Their graduates go on to work at some of the country’s top Fortune 500 companies. That is substantial.”

NBC News reached out to the U.S. Department of Education and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but has not received a response.

 Southern University students protest in the 1970s. Southern University

Bridges said he felt it was necessary to provide a more recent report and to this time focus on economic impact.

“We have been in the HBCU value proposition work for decades,” he added. “We have a lot of resources of the value proposition of HBCUs – degree productivity, lower cost options, and communal benefits to those who attend. We wanted to round out our toolbox by adding an economic piece.”

 It has helped, he said, that HBCUs are now an area of interest. Through the UNCF report and documentary, Nelson and Bridges hope a broader picture is painted about black colleges. Those that attend HBCUs know a great deal, but there should be others with that knowledge.

“There are common misconceptions about these institutions. Hopefully the more recent awareness may drive greater interest, investment and knowledge,” Bridges said. “Our hope is to counter some of the ignorance about HBCUs and there is a lot. This is an opportunity to start a national conversation.”

 Southern University students protest in the 1970s. Southern University

“Hopefully there will be a sense of the college experience that results in exuberance about black colleges,” Nelson said. “HBCUs change lives. They changed my parents’ lives, which change my life, which has changed my kids’ lives, which lives on for generations and generations. The impact is amazing and it is important that others know that.”

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