My parents were the product of HBCUs. For generations, there was no other place our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents could go to school. Yet, higher education has always been a prerequisite for entering and competing in mainstream American society. So, in many ways, historically black colleges and universities form the core of the African-American community. The sacrifices made to create these institutions are significant, and are what compelled me to capture this essential chapter of American history.
I set out to tell a story of Americans who refused to be denied a higher education and—in their resistance—created a set of institutions that would influence and shape the landscape of the country for centuries to come. In particular, it was essential that this film highlight authentic, personal accounts alongside archival footage, letters, diaries, photographs, and even home movies of the people who have lived the HBCU experience. The legacy of these institutions is not marked only by milestones and achievements; it is encapsulated by the minds and lives of the people who walked those storied halls.
If education is a cornerstone of society, then HBCUs are the groundwork for advancing justice in America. Thoroughly examining the history of HBCUs not only allowed me to highlight their importance within black communities, but demonstrate how they were instrumental to the formation of protest movements across the United States. The ground was ripe on these campuses. There is a distinct reason, imbued by the institutional legacy of HBCUs, that the challenge to school segregation and the sit-in movement had to come out of Black schools. These were places where African-American students could, for once as the majority, talk about issues that affect the African-American community. That atmosphere is what I sought to capture in the film to give audiences a sense of the energy that emerged out of HBCUs.
It is impossible to capture the entire breadth of HBCU history in under two-hours. My hope is that the film reaffirms the indisputable relevance of HBCUs. With on-going campus racism and an increasingly hostile national climate for communities of color, the need for institutions that prioritize a quality educational, cultural, and social climate for black people is as important as ever. – Stanley Nelson