When acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson hears Doug Williams talk about the impact historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) had on his life, he’s right there with him. Nelson’s PBS documentary Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities explored the impact and continued influence of these institutions, which have historically been havens for black intellectuals, artists, revolutionaries and athletes.
“I don’t know where I would be if it had not been for HBCUs,” said Williams, the former football star at Grambling State University who later became the first African-American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
Williams, a team executive for the Washington Redskins since 2014, headlined a list of former players, including Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice and Chicago Bears star Tarik Cohen, who are part of a segment about HBCUs that aired during The Home Depot College Football Awards on Dec. 6.
“Just to think that it if there were no HBCUs make me tear up,” Williams said. “There [are] so many people I know who mean something to me who attended HBCUs because they couldn’t go anywhere else.”
And that’s the crux of the feature, which highlights these institutions that nurtured the likes of Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Oprah Winfrey and Common — not to mention the 29 Pro Football Hall of Famers who came through HBCUs.
“You have to remember that there’s a portion of history of college sports where basically HBCUs were the only place that African-American athletes could go,” said Nelson. “If you say football has been going on for 150 years, well, for probably 60 of those years HBCUs were the only place that African-American athletes could play. For generations, there was no other place our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents could go to school, and what HBCUs have done historically is give people opportunities — and nowhere more so than in athletics.
“It’s especially significant for African-American quarterbacks, who have typically been shunned, been made to play other positions and typically not been recruited as so many Caucasian quarterbacks have. I think it’s especially important for someone like Doug Williams and black quarterbacks.”