Having studied 18th and 19th century African-American education in America, Prof. Margaret Washington was used as an expert source for the PBS documentary.

February 22, 2018

Professor’s Research Used for PBS Documentary about Historically Black Universities

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With years of research on black education in her arsenal, Prof. Margaret Washington, history, helped bring the PBS documentary ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities to fruition.

While Washington does not appear in the documentary herself, her research — which focuses on American education during the 18th and 19th centuries — provided historical information necessary for making the documentary.

The documentary uses Washington’s work to address the founding and the progress of historically black colleges and universities and the context in which they were created.

“There had to be a transition within these colleges not only so that they go from being high schools to college but also that the cultural influence of African-American heritage be emphasized, and that was a process,” Washington said. “[The faculty] had white sensibilities and they were trying to change African-American culture.”

Washington finds the contribution of historically black colleges and universities “immeasurable.” “Two and a half generations of African-Americans would have had no education,” she said. “The lawyers who essentially were behind [the civil rights movement], for example the NAACP’s legal defense fund, came from historically black colleges.”

While conducting research for the documentary, Washington gained new insights about women who attended historically black colleges and two prominent African-American activists— Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.

“It says something about [Booker T. Washington’s] method of education and what he might have wanted in terms of the future for African-Americans, that maybe he wasn’t as stuck in time as we thought,” she said.

An aspect Washington wishes the documentary focused more on was life after graduating from a historically black college.

She referenced Richard Wright’s novel The Outsider, in which the titular character goes through the struggle of finding a job after finishing school.

In a similar vein, Washington said that though graduating from a historically black college was “personally gratifying” and progressive, “it was still very difficult to get a job.”

From her research and personal experience with her two nieces, Washington believes that historically black colleges are the ideal places to get “an experience that speaks to your cultural heritage.”

“We have enough issues on campuses, issues around race, certainly issues around class, issues around fraternities and sororities, so is it any more unacceptable for a student to create their space based on being native American than it is for a student to create a fraternity,” Washington said.

While Washington feels that one of the biggest accomplishments in African-American education has been the opening of campuses, she sees new problems arising.

“A big loss is that the historically black colleges and universities are underfunded, and that will affect accreditation, enrollment and getting the best faculty,” Washington said. “It’s too bad that it’s either or.”

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities premiered on Feb. 19 and is available to stream for free on PBS.org.