July 18, 2024

Black Excellence in Academics & Athletics: HBCU Week with Maryland Public Television's Travis Mitchell – WORLD Channel

From the college football rivalry of Louisiana’s Southern University and Grambling State University to the high graduation rate of STEM majors, HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) carry storied reputations whose impacts reach far and wide. In an effort to recognize the students, faculty, alumni and historical and cultural significance of HBCUs, Maryland Public Television (MPT) has, over the last four years, dedicated an entire week of television programming to HBCUs in September.
As MPT prepares for its fifth year of HBCU Week, WORLD premieres two new episodes of the series Local, USA that explore the under-told stories of the sacrifice, courage and innovations found in the archives of these important American institutions – HBCU Week: Beyond the Field captures the passion behind two of the biggest HBCU sports tournaments, and HBCU Week: Tradition and Competition follows how rivalries drive both community and camaraderie within these schools.
Travis Mitchell, MPT’s Senior Vice President and Chief Content Officer and the creator of HBCU Week, spoke to Local, USA host Tina McDuffie about how he wanted to spotlight the many ways in which HBCUs have contributed to American history and society.
“These are places of academic excellence. In the nonprofit world, we simply are taught to ask the question, ‘What happened if this did not exist?’ I could only imagine what would happen if HBCUs did not exist,” Mitchell said. “Without the HBCUs at the forefront of change in America, many of the freedoms that we all enjoy to go to the schools of our choosing would not have been possible.”
In an exclusive interview, the Morgan State University alum tells us more about why he wanted to share HBCU stories on screen and how he thinks these documentaries can speak to universal American experiences.
Travis Mitchell: I grew up on the campus of Shaw University, the oldest HBCU in the South. Shaw University was my Wakanda before I knew what Wakanda was; it was a place where I saw Black excellence personified, where a little boy thought that you could be anything that you set your mind to. So, when I went to college, I chose an environment that reminded me of my youth, and I went to Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD.
When you are going through a process of self-discovery as a young person, [and] when you’re at an HBCU, you’re pushed to go beyond what the confines of your community or your neighborhood may have suggested. When I was able to come to Morgan, there were no limitations on the possibilities of my American Dream. I did not believe that mine would be a Dream deferred; I truly believed that mine would be a journey of destiny. And that’s what HBCUs do for their students.
I am Shaw-raised and Morgan-made, and I thought we needed to bring forth these stories. My story is not the only story; it’s one of hundreds of thousands of stories of HBCU graduates who have become successful because of the nurturing and guidance that they received on campuses where they could freely express who they were and be authentically themselves. When I came to Maryland Public Television, I wanted to bring the stories of the cultural significance, the contemporary relevance and the historic role that HBCUs played to the airwaves to reflect not only my childhood experience, but the experience of so many people. 
TM: We put on HBCU football and basketball games from all of the major Black college conferences [because] we had a 15-year partnership with them. It is the one thing that people were demanding to see – HBCU culture on the screen. 
Our audience was not limited to African Americans who went to HBCUs, but there was a curiosity about these American institutions, and there was a demand for the content. We didn’t just showcase the game; we showcased the Battle of the Bands and, more importantly, we told the stories of each one of the schools that were pitted against each other. These stories related to people who could identify with the resilience and the brilliance of the HBCUs in America.
The content value chain starts with listening before you produce – you have to listen to the people that you serve. In public media, I believe we’re in the people business, not the media business. We had to build trust: Was this MPT trying to tell the story about HBCUs because HBCUs were the flavor of the month, because we were in the post-George Floyd era, or was this an authentic commitment to open up the airwaves to all citizens in Maryland, particularly those who had graduated from HBCUs?
Once people were able to see that this was in alignment with our mission to enrich lives and strengthen communities, they understood that HBCU alums could feel safe in their stories being told in the right way using filmmakers who understood and embraced the HBCU experience.
TM: One of my pastors – he’s a graduate of Shaw University and featured in the documentary, Shaw Rising, that I co-executive produced – says, “Shaw is the place where Ella Baker saw fit to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.” And he makes the statement, “No Shaw University, no SNCC, no Voting Rights Act, no Civil Rights Act, no Obama.”
HBCUs have played a pivotal role, and the students that made sacrifices at 18, 19, 20 years old to open public facilities, restaurants, and the American economy for full access and participation put their lives on the line so that we can have equal access to participate as voters in this democracy. We gained full citizenship through their struggle. Had it not been for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, there would not have been a historic presidency for President Obama.
HBCUs are intricately linked to the best that is America, and that’s why we thought it was important to tell all the stories that we can about hope, heroism, and the history of these important American institutions.
TM: To use an example from mainstream sporting contests: When Michigan and Ohio State play, you don’t have to attend either one of those schools to get caught up in the pageantry. And so, in HBCU world, when it comes to these classic match-ups – the Bayou Classic, the CIAA tournament, the Howard Hampton Classic – you are caught up in the best of the competitive nature of sports. It’s not only about the players that are on the court, but it’s the fans in the stands; everybody is there to root on their team.
From an athletic standpoint, it’s important for people to understand that some of the greatest Hall of Fame athletes in the NFL and NBA came right off the campuses of HBCUs. You have to remember that for a large part of the history of professional leagues, because of Jim Crow laws in the country, Black athletes were excluded. Black athletes were predominantly attending HBCUs, and once the professional ranks opened up, that is why you see a large wing of the NBA Hall of Fame and of the NFL Hall of Fame dedicated to the best athletes from HBCUs – from Doug Williams, the first African American to win a Super Bowl ring, who’s a graduate of Grambling State University; to Coach Eddie Robinson, who was, for a large portion of his life, the winningest football coach in college football history, eclipsing Bear Bryant at Alabama.
When you talk about the athletic tradition from Black college sports, it is intertwined with athletic excellence as well as academic excellence.
TM: I hope viewers walk away with the understanding that HBCUs – if you understand their history – are models of the possibility of inclusion. They were places that gave birth to the American Dream and made it possible for newly-freed slaves. They were places that, when the times called, rose to the challenges presented to them, fighting against those who would restrict access to the American Dream. And, because of their sacrifices, they made it possible for Americans to be even freer today.
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From the CIAA to the Bayou Classic, a unique look at sports and spirit that define HBCUs.
As institutions and organizations across the country recognize the historical and cultural significance of HBUCs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) during nationally-recognized HBCU Week programs, WORLD presents Maryland Public Television (MPT)’s HBCU Week programming initiative with films following the athletics, music and legacies of HBCUs.
From Hampton and Howard to NC A&T and NC Central, witness rivalries defining HBCU sports.
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