Brandon E. Patterson, writer for reader-supported nonprofit news organization Mother Nature, shares why America’s black colleges are as important now as they ever were. 

Historically black colleges and universities made headlines during Trump’s first year, as students pushed back against what they perceived as a racist administration. Last May, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was booed during her commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University. And student activists chanted over former FBI Director James Comey’s speech at Howard University—my alma mater—in September. The demonstrations were part of a long history of student activism on HBCU campuses, a history that, until now, had yet to be told on screen.

Tell Them We Are Rising, a new documentary by veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a RevolutionFreedom Summer, The Murder of Emmett Till), is the first feature-length documentary on the history of these institutions. Premiering on PBS on Monday, February 19, the film takes a look at the schools’ inception as slavery drew to a close, their evolution over the 20th century, and the integral role they’ve played in black social movements.

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Mother Jones: Why this film, and why now?

Stanley Nelson: A few reasons. One, the African American community has had few institutions that sustain it: The black church. I made a film a few years ago about black newspapers. And black colleges and universities—there has been nothing that has been more of a catalyst for African Americans to enter the middle class. I didn’t see people lining up to tell the story. I kind of felt like if I didn’t tell it, nobody would. On a more personal note, my mother went to Talladega College and my father went to Howard in the 1930s. If they hadn’t gone to those colleges, they couldn’t go to college. So it changed the trajectory of my family, and so many other families.

MJ: What parts of the HBCU story did you think were most important to communicate?

SN: We set out to cover about 170 years of history in 90 minutes. We figured the best way to do that would be to tell stories. I felt it was really important to start during the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African Americans, because that’s kind of the framework of the whole film. We go into, then, the first HBCUs that are formed after the [Civil War] and into Booker T. Washington and his debates with W.E.B. DuBois. Our mission was for each piece of the story—there’s seven or eight chapters—to convey something different. The first chapter is the denial of education and the importance of education. The Booker T. piece was sort of, which way is education going to go? I found it fascinating that Booker T. Washington was arguably the most powerful black man in the country at that time, and he’s a college president. He’s being propped up in many ways by Southern planters and the Northern industrialists. And then we go into the idea of the New Negro—when African Americans return after World War I and say we want something different.

MJ: You recently released “Black Colleges in the Age of Trump,” a short film for the New York Times, which looks at the politics of Trump and HBCUs. Did you feel the need for a a supplement to Tell Them We Are Rising?

SN: HBCUs have been in the news over the first year of Trump read more…