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The HBCU campuses immortalized on TV and in movies

Morris Brown, Wiley College, Spelman and Virginia State just to name-drop a few

Featuring historically black colleges and universities – real or made-up – in television and film continues to influence how viewers look at these black institutions.

Fictional historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been making appearances in television shows since at least 1987, when Hillman College became the centerpiece of A Different World. Georgia A&M University is the current backdrop of the latest TV drama The Quad. Other fictional HBCUs in films such as Mission College in School Daze, Atlanta A&T in Drumline and Truth University in Stomp The Yard showcased beautiful landscapes and bright students.

Though the names of these schools were imitations, real HBCUs were often used as their campuses.

Most recently, Howard University made a cameo in the hit NBC TV series This Is Us. HBCU students and alumni were touched and raved about it. Other viewers who didn’t attend an HBCU may have been exposed to a school and perspective they were not familiar with.

If you ever wondered what other institutions have appeared on the screen, here’s a list of 10 other notable times real HBCU campuses and students gave viewers a taste of black college life.

A Different World (1987-1993) (Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College)

The cast of A Different World

NBCU Photo Bank

When the hit sitcom A Different World debuted in 1987, many never imagined the show would leave a lasting impact on black culture. Thirty years later, it continues to inspire thousands to enroll at HBCUs. But did you know that the images of the fictional Hillman College campus used in the series were filmed at Clark Atlanta University and Spelman College in Atlanta? They appeared on the show thanks to Howard alumna and producer/director Debbie Allen. For her, showcasing the images of these schools would help to accurately reflect the academic, social, and political atmosphere of life on a black campus.

School Daze (1988) (Morris Brown College)

Columbia Pictures

The same year that President Ronald Reagan enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, actor Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America came out in theaters, and Bobby McFerrin started singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Morehouse College alumnus Spike Lee produced his second feature film, School Daze. The movie, one of Lee’s most popular works, not only encouraged African-American college students to think politically about black Greek-letter organization life and colorism, it gave black colleges national exposure. The movie was first filmed at Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University before officials at all three colleges requested that Lee stop filming on their campuses, concerned about how each school was being portrayed. This pushed Lee to shoot the rest of the movie at the private, liberal arts Morris Brown College.

Drumline (2002) (Morris Brown College, Grambling State University, Clark Atlanta University and Bethune-Cookman University)

Most notably known for giving the nation a fictional, but realistic perspective of HBCU marching bands, Drumline has an all-star lineup of Southern HBCUs featured throughout the film. While many have speculated about which university Atlanta A&T portrayed, there was no question about the performances from the bands representing Morris Brown College, Grambling State University, Clark Atlanta University and Bethune-Cookman University. If you watch closely during the film’s battle of college bands at BET’s Big Southern Classic, this movie’s version of regionals, you can see the distinctive uniforms of the Morris Brown Marching Wolverines, GSU’s Tiger Marching Band, CAU’s Mighty Marching Panthers and Bethune-Cookman’s Marching Wildcats. Even on the film’s soundtrack, if you skip to tracks 15 (“Marching Band Medley”) and 16 (“Classic Drum Battle”), you will be able listen and repeat the marvelous sounds of these bands.

College Hill (2004-2009) (Southern University, Langston University, Virginia State University, and University of the Virgin Islands)

College Hill South Beach


Southern University, Langston University, Virginia State University, and the University of the Virgin Islands have made history. These four HBCUs are part of the first reality television series to follow the lives of students at HBCUs. Though the series brought record ratings to BET during its tenure, the schools involved received much criticism from alumni and other members of the black community. The fourth season featuring UVI was especially controversial and caused the show to change its branding from HBCUs to cities in the following two seasons. While there was nudity, profanity, and sexual situations, the series also highlighted more positive aspects of each institution by focusing on the locations and students who attended the schools. It even persuaded some black viewers to enroll in HBCUs, taking the good with the bad.

Train Ride (2005) (Cheyney University)

The Academy Award-winning thriller Train Ride revolves around a date rape on a college campus in Philadelphia. Though the film featured a cast including MC Lyte, Wood Harris, and Esther Rolle, it never became mainstream. Its director, Rel Dowdell, is a Philadelphia native who received his undergraduate degree at Fisk University. Dowdell used the campus of Cheyney University, the oldest HBCU in the U.S., as the primary location for the movie. At one point, the film was ranked No. 5 in the top 10 “Best College Movies” on BET.com.

The Great Debaters (2007) (Wiley College)

AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, David Lee, FILE

Denzel Washington directed and starred in the film that featured other notable actors such as Forest Whitaker, Kimberly Elise, Nate Parker, Gina Ravera, Jermaine Williams and Jurnee Smollett. The Great Debaters dove into the true story of the Wiley College debate team in the 1930s. The film focused on debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, a Lincoln University alumnus. He trained and mentored black students who faced conflict because of Jim Crow segregation laws. Despite these circumstances, the team was so successful that it was able to take on the Harvard University debate team, one of the top teams in the country. The film gave audiences an opportunity to see an untold story about black college students and see the high standards that professors are held to at HBCUs. Among movie reviews, The New York Times said the film stood out as a great example of Leading the Charge to Inspire Underdogs. Set locations of the film included Mansfield, Louisiana, the Texas State railroad in Palestine, Texas, and Harvard University in Boston (the film was the first since 1979 to be allowed to film on Harvard’s campus).

Stomp The Yard (2007) (Morris Brown College, Morehouse College, and Clark Atlanta University)

Stomp the Yard created yet another opportunity to highlight Atlanta’s most notable HBCUs. With stars including Meagan Good, Columbus Short and rhythm and blues artists Ne-Yo and Chris Brown, the film centers around black Greek-letter organizations and the art of stepping. The campuses of Morris Brown College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University provided the background. The film not only put a positive light on the HBCU experience, it called attention to the way black Greek-letter organizations influence these institutions.

The Quad (2017) (Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College)

Anika Noni Rose as Dr. Eva Fletcher in BET’s The Quad

BET Networks

Season 2 of the latest HBCU TV series is scheduled to premiere on Jan. 23, 2018.

The Quad continues its attempt to connect with the HBCU community and other viewers in the 21st century, much like A Different World did in the ’80s and ’90s. If you aren’t already familiar with the drama series about HBCU culture and relationships, the fictional HBCU Georgia A&M University is shot at Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College in Atlanta. The storylines aren’t just about students but the institutions themselves. For instance, Georgia A&M, like many real-life black colleges and universities today, is attempting to raise financial capital to survive as an independent HBCU.

Girls Trip (2017) (Florida A&M University)

The highly successful road trip comedy Girls Trip brought in more than $30 million in its opening weekend, and more than $138 million worldwide. Film superstars Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish lead the movie from one hilarious scene to another. With all of this going on, some skipped over the fact that Florida A&M University is part of the storyline – it’s where the four women first became friends. The image of Latifah, Smith, Hall, and Haddish taking graduation pictures in black caps and gowns, covered with green and orange stoles (FAMU’s school colors) is a beautiful one. Years later, they reunite for a “girls trip” to New Orleans for the Essence Festival. The film was produced by FAMU alumnus Will Packer, so it’s no wonder he wanted to include his alma mater in the hit film. Displaying black women achieving higher education at an HBCU is clearly a money-making move.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (2017) (All)

Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson explores the pivotal role HBCUs have played in American history, culture, and identity in the 2017 documentary Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities. The documentary gives an extensive lens of the evolution of HBCUs and their involvement in higher education, civil rights and equality for African-Americans. There are countless stories and historic lessons from all HBCUs that are currently thriving today, so Nelson’s work is a great attempt at condensing and highlighting the most important viewpoints and historical lessons. The names of all 104 HBCUs make an appearance in one way or another. If you have not seen it yet, fear not. The 90-minute film will premiere nationally on the acclaimed PBS series, Independent Lens on Feb. 19, 2018.

Paul Holston journalism major from Summerville, SC. He attends Howard University and served as 2016-17 editor-in-chief of The Hilltop.