Though devastated by hurricanes, University of the Virgin Islands knows ‘UVI Will Rise’ The only HBCU outside of the continental U.S. finds the power in the words ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’

The title of Stanley Nelson’s most recent film, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, immediately resonated with me as president of the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI). A couple of months before I previewed the film, UVI, the only historically black college and university (HBCU) outside of the mainland, was struck by two Category 5 hurricanes within a two-week period.

Winds of 185 mph swept through our campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix, leaving trails of devastation and destruction in their wake. Our beautiful and scenic campuses looked like war zones. Ten buildings across both campuses were uninhabitable; faculty members lost their offices; students were deprived of classrooms and laboratories; and a treasured residence hall, and so many aspects of college life were no longer present. The estimated damage to our campuses ranges between $60 million to $80 million.

The theme we embraced in order to make sense out of catastrophe was “UVI Will Rise.” None of us had heard of the film, proof that this theme came from the depths of our collective consciousness. From our souls emerged the same spirit that had propelled HBCUs for generations — a spirit that defies the odds and faces challenges with resilience and creativity. We even created a “UVI Rise Relief Fund” to support the needs of our students and employees, and it has received support from over a hundred donors.

About 150 of our students on the St. Thomas campus were forced to live in a shelter residence hall that normally accommodates 70. They went 36 hours without power and running water. The morning after Hurricane Irma left, I visited the residence hall on our St. Thomas campus.

While I saw fear on the faces of some, I mostly saw a desire to rise above this tragedy.

Through the creativity, resilience and dedication of our faculty, staff and administrators, we were able to resume classes within a month after the first hurricane arrived. This was done in the midst of the stark reality that neither campus had permanent power, islandwide curfews were in existence, and all night classes had to be canceled due to the lack of lighting on campus.

This tragedy created a laboratory for us to demonstrate our “academic resiliency.” Faculty members transformed some traditional classes to an online format, while others recorded their lectures and classes so that students who missed class would still be able to obtain the information.

The principle of “hold harmless” guided our perspective on how students should be treated in the midst of this major uncertainty. Students were given the right to withdraw without penalties, and faculty members were asked to be flexible and creative in how they conducted their classes and engaged our students. They would not lower their standards, but raised their patience and increased their passion. Faculty members and staff were being asked to embrace this academic resiliency spirit at a time when many of them had either lost their homes, electricity, transportation and precious belongings.

Approximately 350 of our 2,300 students withdrew during the fall 2017 semester, but the vast majority remained and completed the semester.

The experience was not perfect, but we rose above this horrendous challenge with dignity and pride. We were even asked to save the semester for another Caribbean educational institution — the University of St. Marten, and we responded to the call.

Recovery from two Category 5 hurricanes is not a straight line forward. It involves circular movements of frustration and disappointments. It is a dance of one step forward and two steps back at times.

The HBCU spirit of “rising” has no end because there are constant challenges, obstacles and forces formed against these institutions. Yet rising has a spiritual beauty that reminds us that if we remain faithful to our calling, we will always reach another plateau, even if it is just for a temporary moment.

I am very excited about the national debut of Tell Them We Are Rising because we want the world to know that HBCUs continue to rise, and that the University of the Virgin Islands is still rising from one of the most ferocious hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.

UVI wants the world to know that the spirit embodied in this powerful and moving documentary is not isolated to struggles against social injustice, but includes struggles in the face of natural disasters, financial setbacks and national doubters.

Martin Luther King, a graduate of an HBCU, stated that “the ultimate measure of a man (or woman) is not where he (she) stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he (she) stands in times of challenge and controversy.”

Tell Them We Are Rising is UVI’s marching anthem for the future. It is our continuing resolution to never cease from overcoming whatever the world or nature sends our way. This is the precious history and mission of HBCUs. We rose not because of the size of our endowments or the gifts of our philanthropic partners; we rose and continue to rise because of the spirit that resides within these institutions, and the precious individuals who choose to be associated with our special mission.

David Hall is the president of the University of the Virgin Islands, the only historically black college and university outside of mainland USA.

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.


‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ doesn’t tell the whole story of HBCUs, but it’s a start Documentary on PBS is the equivalent of an introductory survey course

A new PBS documentary about the nation’s historically black colleges and universities might just provide the best argument for a multihour, Ken Burns-type epic exploration of the subject.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will air as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on Feb. 19. Directed by Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), Tell Them We Are Rising goes broad but not particularly deep as it attempts to recount the history of black higher education from slavery to the present day in an hour and 25 minutes.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics. The documentary arrives at a time when the future of many HBCUs is uncertain as schools face the compounding weight of decades of financial strain, growing competition for students and pressure to keep tuition costs down.

Tell Them is at its best when delving into the birth of the institutions, many of which were established with the help of government land grants after the Civil War. Nelson outlines the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and briefly touches on the fact that in their infancies, many HBCUs were run by white presidents. While Nelson outlines the story of Fayette McKenzie, the Fisk University president who tried to ban any sort of social interaction between the sexes in 1924, he neglects to follow the legacy of McKenzie’s thinking, which shows up in the visitation policies on many a modern HBCU campus.

There are so many valuable, urgent story lines worth mining, and Tell Them simply doesn’t have the time to do them justice. The tradition of activism on HBCU campuses, which resulted in the creation of African-American studies programs and the de-Anglicization of many HCBU liberal arts programs also resulted in a deadly crackdown at Southern University. There’s the role fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Omega Psi Phi played in creating influential networks of black professionals. The legacy of protest hasn’t evaporated from modern HBCU campuses, but Tell Them falters in connecting past narratives to the present, whether it’s Howard University students protesting the George W. Bush administration or students nationwide criticizing their administrators for meeting with President Donald Trump. So much is curiously absent from the film, such as an exploration of the role Morehouse College played in shaping Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries in the civil rights movement. Mary McCleod Bethune, the founder of what’s now Bethune-Cookman University and one of the chief architects of black higher education, is an afterthought.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with HBCUs or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics.

Tell Them functions as an outline for what ought to be a deep-dive serialized documentary. Such a format would offer more opportunity to address questions such as what to make of the controversial legacy of the nation’s first black president when it comes to federal treatment of HBCUs. What challenges do they face from a current presidential administration that so far only seemed interested in convening the presidents of those institutions at the White House to use them as props? What are the modern issues students are facing at HBCUs, whether it’s the fight for queer visibility or addressing a national dilemma of campus sexual assault that presents unique challenges for HBCUs and their students?

Still, it’s understandable why we haven’t seen a splurge on such a subject. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and there are only a couple of networks (TV One and BET come to mind) that might be interested in the sort of exhaustive research I’m suggesting, and even then it’s a stretch. Maybe Netflix, with its seemingly endless pool of programming funds, would be willing. Maaaaaaybe.

Tell Them We Are Rising introduces the idea that HBCUs are under threat, and it certainly seems to support the idea of their continued existence. But aside from a broad history lesson, it stops short of offering much else.

Why ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ is a must-see The documentary tells the story of how black colleges brought our people out of slavery

I have watched Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, three times now.

The first viewing was in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Nelson and his team received a standing ovation after the audience watched the film. The second was last summer at a private screening in New York, where Nelson discussed the film and filmmaking with five students from historically black colleges. The third time I joined an audience in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to view the film on Monday with Nelson in attendance.

Each viewing uncovers new nuggets of insight that underlined the tenacity and resilience of enslaved men and women so desperate for education that they risked death to learn to read.

Nelson said he was inspired to tackle Tell Them We Are Rising for multiple reasons.

His parents attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His mother, Alleluia Ransom, attended Talladega College in Alabama. His father, Dr. Stanley Nelson, attended Howard University. “That changed their lives, and it changed my life,” he said.

Nelson’s larger vision was to pay homage to a significant African-American institution. The subject was not particularly sexy, but it illuminated the quest for black freedom through the prism of higher education. “There have been just a few institutions that we’ve had as African-Americans that have sustained us,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “One of them is black colleges and universities. I thought that it was a story that nobody was lining up to tell.”

With several Emmys, a Peabody and MacArthur Fellowship, Nelson has become one of the country’s most accomplished documentarians. This film, Tell Them We Are Rising, may have been one of the most difficult he has attempted.

There were challenges and hurdles. The first was how to take a collection of great but individual HBCU stories and weave them into a narrative that described a powerful, overarching experience.

“So many times, people think of it as the Morgan State story or the Howard story or the Fisk story or the Spelman story,” Nelson said. “Nobody was looking at it as a united story.”

Unlike his powerful civil rights documentary Freedom Summer, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, there was no one classic text to draw from. In Tell Them We Are Rising, Nelson and his team had to piece together footage, articles, photographs, “everything we could” to tell a captivating story.

The other challenge was telling the story of an institution whose history continues to unfold.

His 2015 documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, accounted for a period between 1966 to 1972 and chronicled certain watershed moments. By contrast, Tell Them We Are Rising covers the 150-year journey of black colleges in 90 minutes.

Some scenes were especially hard to watch, as the film explores historical events particularly personal to African-American viewers, such as the killings by law enforcement of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests, which remain unsolved.

Every black college graduate 65 or older lived through one of these moments, whether at a predominantly white institution petitioning for more black awareness or at an HBCU petitioning a conservative administration to take back its blackness.

But as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax said, the story of HBCUs is not simply a story of deprivation, need and want.

“The story of HBCUs as Stanley tells it is the story of powerful action,” Lomax said. “There are so many stories to choose from we had to figure out what stories would work and leave the audience with a sense of what black colleges have been and maybe where they are going.”

One of the most poignant moments of Tell Them We Are Rising takes place at Spelman College when Alversia Wade, an incoming freshman, explains why she chose the institution.

Wade spent her young academic career, from kindergarten through high school, as the single black student in her school. She describes the feeling of walking on campus and seeing a sea of fellow black students. “They all look like you,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They all looked like you.”

Tell Them We are Rising, which airs Monday night on PBS, comes at a time when there is a hunger for positive, powerful images and good news within the far-flung black community.

On Friday, Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, will open in theaters across the country. Nelson was working on his Black Panther documentary when Marvel announced it was planning to release its superhero movie in 2018.

“When I first heard about it, I thought about Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the bunch,” Nelson said.

There was some confusion. “People would call up and say, ‘I hear you’re working on this Black Panther film, is it Marvel or is it DC?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I said it’s neither one of them. It’s real life.”

He looks forward to seeing the film. “It’s that it’s creating so much excitement. Like, it’s something African-Americans needed and didn’t know they needed.”

The HBCU student, in many ways, is like the hero of Black Panther — a mythical African superhero existing outside the suffocating institutionalized racism that defines virtually every minute, every hour, of life for black Americans. While their institutions are often under-resourced, black students who choose the HBCU experience enjoy the psychic respite and reinforcement of being in the majority.

At a time when 9 percent of black college students were enrolled at an HBCU in 2015, the often-asked question is do we still need HBCUs? The question overlooks the reality that 90 percent of black students are spread over thousands of predominantly white institutions, leaving those who attend a significant but often overwhelmed minority. The largest concentration of young black college students resides at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. For many young students, that alone is worth the price of the ticket.

HBCUs are not for everyone, no more than single-gender schools are not for everyone. Still, black colleges and universities are needed more than ever.

During a post-film panel discussion Monday, former Spelman president Johnetta Cole said, “If historically black colleges and universities did not exist, we would have to invent them. … Since they do exist, we have an extraordinary responsibility to support them.”

“Until racism and racialism end in this country, there will be a need for HBCUs,” Nelson told me. “Until the education system is an even playing field — from elementary school to junior high school until college, until those things are equal — we still need HBCUs. Until we have an equal society, young African-American people need a safe intellectual space that HBCUs provide.”

Lomax, the United Negro College Fund president and CEO, said Tell Them We Are Rising was “an inspirational story. It is a call to action to our community, first and foremost to invest in them, to own them, to support them and to ensure that they remain durable in the future.”

That resonates.

Tell Them We Are Rising challenges those of us who attended HBCUs. A challenge to look in the mirror, to step up, to donate what Cole referred to as the three Ts: our time, our talent and our treasure.

This is the only way HBCUs will continue to rise.

“These institutions will not survive without our support,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

To share in the conversation about Tell them We Are Rising, join us on social media Monday, using the hashtags #HBCURising and #BHMxHBCU.