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.


Cherie S. White
Cherie S. White
Cherie S. White is Director of Digital Strategy for the Tom Joyner Foundation, a writer and editor.