Recently, the Trump White House released a signing statement connected to a federal funding measure, which has advocates for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) more than a little nervous about future funding of these institutions.

“My Administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender (e.g… “School Improvement Programs,” and “Historically Black College and University Capital Financing Program Account…) in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment,” the last paragraph of the statement reads.

Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)

In other words, Trump may be open to getting rid of a federal program that has been in existence since 1992, that provides money for construction at HBCU, at least that is the fear of those who believe in the mission of these schools, some of which have been educating Americans since just after the end of the Civil War.

Subsequent attempts by Trump to clarify his stance on HBCU probably further muddied already tempestuous waters.

This is the 21st century political backdrop for a fascinating new documentary by award -winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

I recently saw, “Tell Them We Are Rising” (twice) at the Maryland Film Festival and I had the opportunity to talk to Nelson about his film.

“For African-Americans it was always thought, even from the time when we were enslaved, was that if we could get an education then things would change. And so education has always been… had a really outsized role in the Black community,” Nelson said. “We’ve looked at education as a way out and for so many years, HBCUs represented the only way that we could get a higher education and so they’ve been incredibly important, to not only my family but to African Americans all over the country,” added Nelson, whose mother and father both attended HBCU in the 1930’s.

Nelson, who directed the Emmy nominated documentary, “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999),” “Marcus Garvey: Look At Me In The Whirlwind (2000),” and the 2015 documentary, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” among a phalanx of his films, affirms with his new documentary that HBCU played a pivotal role in the American civil rights movement from its beginning. And Nelson focuses specifically on the role of Charles Hamilton Houston (one of the greatest legal minds of the 20th century and the first dean of the Howard University School of Law), who along with his prized student, Thurgood Marshall, were the prime architects of the legal strategy that fueled, “The Movement.”

“The chapter about Charles Hamilton Houston in the film is called, “An Audacious Plan,” and we call it that, because that’s what it was…he comes up with this plan, that he’s not only going to make Howard University Law School, the best law school for African-Americans in the country, at that point (late 1920’s) it was a pretty crappy law school, he’s going to make this a great law school,” Nelson said. “But, he’s also going to educate a cadre of lawyers, who are then going to go and they’re going to overturn the whole idea of segregation as a way of life in the south. Now, this is a crazy idea…but, the fact that he actually instituted it and did it, is just one of the most remarkable chapters in American history,” he added.

In 2017, we are reminded in Maryland that its HBCU (The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education v. Maryland Higher Education Commission), are still using the courts as Hamilton and Marshall did in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s, to seek equality, because of historic and systematic underfunding and undermining of academic programs (duplication) of these schools for generations.

But, Nelson suggests waiting for the government to fully fund HBCUs may be like waiting for a train that will never arrive and those who believe in the mission of our Black institutions of higher education must act accordingly.

“I think that we’re going to be in a battle over the next few years, over almost everything that we know in life, and government support of almost everything. So,

HBCUs are just part of that,” Nelson said.  “I think that it’s really important that people organize and resist and fight for what they believe in. And that means everybody…it’s going to matter that we all stand up for what we believe in and that includes the survival of HBCUs.”

Sean Yoes is a senior contributor for the AFRO and host and executive producer of AFRO First Edition, which airs Monday through Friday 5 p.m.-7 p.m. on WEAA, 88.9.


Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor