Sundance Documentary Traces the Rise and Potential Decline of America’s Black Colleges

Students attend class at Tuskegee Institute.

Near the end of the documentary film “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” several students are shown arriving on campuses and preparing for the start of a new semester.

One young woman describes being the “token black girl” at her majority-white high school and how she was culturally placed into a false dichotomy as either a ghettoed minority or a high-achieving exception.

“I’m tired of those boxes,” she says. “I don’t want to be one thing or the other — I want to be me.”

For roughly 100 years after the Civil War, historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, were the only higher-education option for America’s black community.

That changed with court cases that outlawed racial segregation, and changing attitudes toward diversity and civil rights.

But progress can be a double-edged sword, according to “Tell Them We Are Rising” director Stanley Nelson. As doors opened to black students and scholars, he said, HBCUs struggled to maintain their position in academia.