An early graduating class at an HBCU. Courtesy Montclair Film Festival.

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’
Friday, May 5, 7 p.m.
Wellmont Theater, 5 Seymour St.

Director Stanley Nelson in attendance
Followed by House Party at The Wellmont, 9 p.m.-midnight
A “digital yearbook” has been established for attendees of HBCUs to upload pictures, letters, and diaries, about their lives as students.
HBCUrising.com

By ANTOINETTE MARTIN
For Montclair Local

“Forget what you think you know” about the story of historically black colleges and universities before seeing Stanley Nelson’s new documentary on the subject, advises the program note for the Montclair Film Festival screening of the film on Friday, May 5, at The Wellmont Theater.

That is an astute suggestion, Nelson told Montclair Local in a phone interview. “In fact, I think I’ll steal that line,” said Nelson, who will attend the showing of “Tell Them We Are Rising,” and take questions from the audience. The African-American filmmaker, recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” and co-founder of Firelight Films, said he personally learned a lot of new things in working on “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities.”

Nelson’s film uses original photos and footage of the little-known past at “HBCUs,” as they are referred to by scholars — weaving them into a story replete with heady debate, tragic moments and crescendos of personal and social progress. The movie will be aired on public TV in early 2018.

Interviews with current historians and people who were there “when” enliven the past, complemented by interviews with people who currently attend and teach at schools such as Howard, Fisk, Florida A & M University, Spelman College, and Southern University and A & M College.

The documentary takes its title from the words of retired Union Army Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, to the Storrs School in Atlanta in 1868. Howard asked students what message he should take to the North about the fate of black colleges. Student Richard Robert Wright Sr., who was born a slave, replied with the words “Tell them we are rising.” In the beginning, HBCUs were the “only colleges black people could go to,” Nelson said. Prior to the Civil War, the law forbade teaching slaves.

Booker T. Washington is quoted in the film recalling carrying his mistress’s books to school, and stopping at the door: “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study would be about the same as getting into paradise.”

After the Civil War, first missionaries and then the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church stepped up to start black colleges, many of which eventually became public universities. There were 86 in the South by the late 1800s — and there are more than 100 today.

The film documents how repression and wariness of educating black people thrived post-war: Nelson interviewed historian Edna Green Medford about an attempt to establish a black college in New Haven, where Yale University had been growing ivy on its walls since 1701. The authorities said no; a black institution would “lower the town’s morals.”

“Everyone knows about the shootings at Kent State” in 1970, said Nelson, who is 65 and grew up in New York. Even he did not know about the police killings of two students at Southern University in 1972 after a takeover of the administration building and the arrival of troopers with tear gas and a tank. Nelson unearthed footage of the two dead young men’s blood being washed from the pavement outside the president’s office.

The struggle for equal educational funding and across-the-board access is as urgent as ever, the film suggests.

Where will HBCUs be 10 or 20 years down the road?” Nelson said. “That’s an interesting question. Maybe we can discuss that after the screening Saturday night.”