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A Virtual Tour Uncovers the Hidden History of Black Disenfranchisement

Virtual reality is helping to unearth stories of the Black experience that have been paved over through the years.

Dark clouds are gathering over Old Lick Cemetery on a cold April morning. The tiny parcel of wooded land in Roanoke, Virginia, just north of downtown, is the burial ground for hundreds of Black people. 

It's enclosed by a chain-link fence on a thin strip of land wedged between the interstate highway and a busy main road, and marked by a deteriorating, hand-carved wooden sign, a silent reminder that this cemetery used to be bigger. When Virginia wanted to build I-581 in 1961, the highway took priority. Most of the cemetery was unearthed and its occupants shifted to this tiny spot.

Hundreds of gravestones are scattered haphazardly, some as grave markers and some strewn unceremoniously in piles.

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CNET

"They excavated 960-something people and transferred them. And unfortunately, they did not take the time to identify those bodies," says Trish White-Boyd, the vice mayor of Roanoke. "Just horrifying."

The cemetery's disturbing story would likely remain a footnote in the city's history were it not for a project called Hidden in Plain Site, the brainchild of creative agency BrownBaylor. It's designed to resurface the lost narrative of marginalized Black people across the US with experiences you can view through a browser or virtual reality headset. 

HiPS represents one of the more novel uses of virtual reality, which has largely been used for gaming, entertainment and, increasingly, social media. It's helping researchers bring the secret history of places like this to life. Given the breadth of locations that have seen their history sanitized or forgotten, there's a wide opportunity for HiPS to make a bigger impact around the country. 

"We've had total communities disrupted and destroyed because of interstates," says Dontrese Brown, CEO and founder of BrownBaylor. "The most impactful thing is these narratives are 100% all across our country. And you can align that with any historically underrepresented group."

Creating a virtual tour for communities

Piles of rubble, some smoldering, with street signs showing the intersection of N. 7th and E. Preston streets

A flourishing Black community that included the only school to hire Black teachers was "erased so thoroughly that even the street grid was warped."

HiPS

HiPS was born from a discussion that took place just days after the murder of George Floyd.

Brown was already working in partnership with Dean Browell, executive vice president of research firm Feedback, and David Waltenbaugh, CEO and founder of Root VR, on a virtual reality tour of their hometown of Richmond, Virginia. The Black Lives Matter movement offered the trio a direction beyond the "admittedly vanilla" tour of the city they had initially planned. 

"The real dream of exactly what this could be took flight," Browell says.

Their virtual tour of Richmond kicks off with Devil's Half Acre and Lumpkin's Jail, where enslaved people were bought and sold and freedom fighters were hanged. The tour emphasizes how these stories have been buried, with the site now an empty field next to a parking lot by the interstate.

It's not only the history of slavery that's been hidden away. Empowering Black stories have also been concealed by razing buildings and entire neighborhoods.

There's a parking lot where Thalhimers department store used to stand, where the Richmond 34 participated in a sit-in protest during the civil rights movement to help desegregate Richmond. 

And yet another parking lot that used to be a flourishing Black community that included the only school to hire Black teachers. It was "erased so thoroughly that even the street grid was warped to fit the new status quo," Brown says in the HiPS voiceover tour.

Each project begins with capturing 360-degree photography and video of a site, which are combined with archival photos to show what a place used to look like. In cases where there are no images, they use illustrations and 3D renderings. These are all stitched together in an interactive tour by Waltenbaugh's virtual reality company using the Unity gaming software -- the same used for games like Pokemon Go and Cuphead -- for people to "see" what the city looked like in centuries past through a VR headset from wherever you are.

To make the experience as accessible as possible, it's also freely available as a desktop tour that operates similarly to Google Street View, with narration and navigation.

"Our goal is to create experiences that use some of the rules that are informed by what VR technology offers in its immersion, but are accessible in a broader way," Waltenbaugh says.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts embraces its roots

Blueprint of a theater showing segregated bathrooms

Segregated theater bathrooms marked on VMFA blueprints, ca. 1950-54.

VMFA/HiPS

A new Hidden in Plain Site showcase went live in May at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. A smaller variant of their Richmond tour, HiPS: VMFA tells the story of the museum's history: The museum was built in 1936 on land that used to be worked by enslaved people.

"That was way before the museum existed, but we want to honor that space and that experience," says Celeste Fetta, director of education at VMFA. 

The showcase goes into the museum's history of segregation. Parts of the building, like the bathrooms and theater, were segregated in the 1950s, but the museum has also been home to a fellowship program since the 1940s -- and within the first few years awarded a fellowship to a Black artist. 

A part of the museum's new interactive gallery, A Closer Look, the HiPS showcase lives on touchscreen displays in the museum and will involve VR headsets for special events. HiPS: VMFA is also available on the museum's website for anyone who wants to view the showcase.

VMFA and HiPS worked with a Black community advisory group to ensure they were "telling the whole story right and elevating voices that have been marginalized in the past," Fetta says.

Six works of art, including works by contemporary Black artists and Native American artists, are also displayed in the showcase. Visitors are prompted to dive deeper into the stories being told, and to examine which have been hidden and which have been elevated -- and how we can change that.

"Art's a great tool to introduce conversation," Fetta says. "You start with the visual and then you understand context, and it opens the door to having difficult conversations. And that's OK -- you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable before you can move past that and have this conversation to affect change."

Roanoke embraces its roots

Old Lick Cemetery in Roanoke, Virginia

Old Lick Cemetery, Roanoke

David Waltenbaugh

With Richmond done, BrownBaylor turned to Roanoke. Just five minutes down that interstate from Old Lick Cemetery is Blue Ridge Behavioral Health, formerly Burrell Hospital, the first Black hospital in the city.

"That's where all the Black people would go for services or medical attention -- that's the only place they were allowed to go here in Roanoke," White-Boyd says.

As part of the HiPS project, the history of Burrell Hospital will be used as a learning module for med students so they understand the history of marginalized people and health care. When first-year students arrive, they will be required as part of orientation to watch the HiPS project either via computer or on VR headsets in the school's library.

Dr. Dave Trinkle, associate dean of Community and Culture for Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, became involved in the HiPS project as a result of the university's equity and inclusion taskforce. 

"We hope not just to impart the history of Roanoke, but impart the importance of understanding the history of any community that they end up in," says Trinkle, who used to serve on the Roanoke City Council.

Trinkle pushed for sites centered on health care -- like Burrell Hospital and the story of Roanoke local Henrietta Lacks, whose HeLa cells are still used to study the effects of viruses, hormones, drugs, radiation, poisons and toxins, and helped develop the polio and COVID-19 vaccines

Roanoke wants to build a statue recognizing Lacks' contribution to modern medicine, with HiPS to include her in its experience. 

"It is an amazing story," White-Boyd says. "Those cells are still multiplying. She is immortal." 

Other Roanoke sites being explored by HiPS include the city's Berglund Center for performing arts, the construction of which razed an entire Black neighborhood; Dreamland, a recreational space that Black residents could use instead of having to visit segregated pools and dance halls, and which later became a city dump; and the Henry Street historically Black neighborhood that was removed and has now been partially gentrified. 

"That whole community is gone now," White-Boyd says. "It was in the name of 'progress.'"

Expansion of HiPS across the nation

Thalhimers department store in Richmond, Virginia

Thalhimers department store, where the Richmond 34 participated in a sit-in protest during the civil rights movement to help desegregate Richmond, is now a parking lot.

HiPS

HiPS isn't stopping in Virginia. The history of the US is infused with stories of repression, neglect and erasure.

"It's not just indicative of Roanoke or Richmond," White-Boyd says. "It's probably where you live, all over the United States."

The goal when starting HiPS was to create a prototype to uncover and lift up voices in historically underrepresented communities seen as expendable when it came to expanding a downtown area, or building an interstate or a new parking lot.

"We exist to use technology to change the future of cultural education, providing a platform for every historically underrepresented group to tell their stories and their narrative," Brown says. 

The Roanoke project comes amid a complex political minefield, including a discussion of critical race theory, a concept that's taught at the university level about how systematic racism pervades society, but that's been caught up in a debate over whether younger students are taught these ideas.

Given the subject matter that HiPS deals with, Brown, Waltenbaugh and Browell are eyeing the potential impact the debate may have over its ability to expand. 

"It's a pretty aggressive tactic for clamping down on unsavory information -- and who gets to decide what that information is?" Waltenbaugh says. "It'll be interesting to see if we run into any issues."

States like Florida have introduced bills prohibiting public schools and even private businesses from making people "feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress" when teaching children or training workers about discrimination.

But being uncomfortable is part of learning about America's racial history.

HiPS will probably run into issues with the governor, Brown says. "It's just a matter of time as we continue to push this forward … We don't ask for permission. We'll go out and we'll get it done. We're happy to stand up and talk about this because these are narratives and stories that need to be told."

One of the main goals of HiPS is enlightening people and developing empathy. The immersive nature puts the viewer into the shoes of the Black American experience, Brown says, but in a "safe space" like their own homes -- giving them the ability to talk about certain things.

"Non-brown and Black people have a hesitation on having conversations around the topic of slavery, social injustice, those things, but what this project provides is an opportunity for them to consume this content, understand this content and then be able to go out and talk about it from an empathetic standpoint," Brown says. 

HiPS has spoken to people who have viewed their Richmond project, and emerged with an understanding of how they can talk about history and collaborate better within their own lives and communities to move in the direction of equality. Many of the viewers have come away in tears, Browell says.

"We've had a conversation a ton of times where folks just had no idea about all of this, but now understand when the topics of slavery and social injustice come up," Brown says. "They now feel better about talking about these things, because they have a better context and understanding of what went on because of Hidden in Plain Site."