Website will reveal hidden Black history in Richmond.
History is everywhere, of course. You just have to know where to look, though the task is made more difficult when the past has been paved over, left to wither or generally covered up.
With tools such as virtual reality production and archival images, the new interactive online project, “Hidden in Plain Site,” brings Richmond’s Black history to life in unexpected places such as open fields and parking lots. It goes live this week.
“By traveling through time and around the city of Richmond,” the narrator says in the introduction, “we will reveal examples of tremendous history without monuments, of a Black experience that exists around corners and at times under your feet.”
The idea was born after the killing of George Floyd in May in Minneapolis and as the Confederate monuments began coming down in Richmond, and it sprang from the simple question: “What can we do?”
The conversation was between friends J. Dontrese
Brown, who helped lead the drive to put Arthur Ashe’s name on North Boulevard, and Dean Browell, executive vice president of market research company Feedback, who has a personal passion for “social justice.” It evolved into this: a mutual desire to do something that didn’t necessarily involve protest, but “something a little bit different that still addresses those racial equity issues,” Brown said.
Brown, executive director of The Edge Career Development Program at RandolphMacon College and co-founder of BROWNBAYLOR, a creative strategy and marketing agency, mentioned his Shockoe Bottom office is close to the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, a notorious holding facility for enslaved people in the 1800s that is now a grassy area nearMain Street Station surrounded by parking lots, overpasses and Interstate 95. The epicenter of one of the largest slave-trading hubs in the United States is marked by nothing more than a cobblestone path and three interpretive signs.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I’ve got to go by Lumpkin’s Jail,’ ” said Brown, who came to Richmond in 2015 and first heard of Lumpkin’s Jail as a participant in Leadership Metro Richmond. “I’m looking for this huge building or some huge marker that says, ‘Hey, this is Lumpkin’s
Jail!’ and I found nothing.”
Nearby, the area known as “Devil’s Half Acre,” was the site of the gallows where participants in Gabriel’s Rebellion were hanged and an African American burial ground— all with little public acknowledgment.
Brown told Browell it’s history “people just walk by like it’s hidden,” to which Browell replied something about “hidden in plain sight.” Light bulbs began flickering on overhead, Brown changed “sight” to “site,” and the notion of using technology to bring this history out of
hiding began to take shape. The concept totally took off when they approached David Waltenbaugh, founder and CEO of Root VR whom they describe as their “tech guru,” who assured them, “We can absolutely do that.”
And they did.
The result is Hidden in Plain Site, a free website (www. hiddeninplainsite.org) that can be viewed both conventionally on a computer screen or through a virtual reality headset. Either offers 360-degree views for a more immersive experience and the ability to click around the scene for additional information or photos. The interactive experience, which Browell describes as “version one,” features a dozen historic sites around Richmond and runs in the range of 16-20 minutes, depending on how long you linger at each one.
Brown and Browell envision the website as an evolving process, adding more sites to it as time goes by. They are partnering
with museums and schools and fundraising in order to maintain the website as a free resource and to secure VR headsets to make it a more effective — and very cool— learning tool for students.
The project “makes a deeper connection between yesterday and today,” said Adele Johnson, executive director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, which will include Hidden in Plain Site among its exhibits, probably after the first of the year.
“We talk a lot about the untold stories and the under-told stories and the forgotten stories, so this fits very well with our mission,” Johnson said. “I also think it makes people want to learn more, and that’s what we’re all about, too.”
The virtual tour begins at Devil’s Half Acre and concludes at the embattled statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, which the narrator, Brown, says “indicates how far we have yet
to go ourselves.” (While Brown serves as the voice of the project, Browell did the research and writing.) In between, there are stops including in Jackson Ward (“theHarlem of the South”) and along Broad Street at the Library of Virginia (previously the site of the office of the Richmond Planet, an influential African American newspaper) and a parking lot where stood the Thalhimers department store, where 34 Virginia Union University students participated in a nonviolent sit-in at a lunch counter to protest segregation. A visit also is paid to the remnants of Navy Hill, a Black community destroyed when Interstate 95 came through downtown Richmond.
A spin through the website was “an education,” said Michael R. Taylor, chief curator and deputy director for art and education at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which plans to introduce Hidden in Plain Site among its exhibitions in February.
“I really came away with a greater understanding,” he said. “I’ve heard about a lot of these things, but to really show you where in the city, it was very powerful.”
Project creators have gotten this far “with sweat equity and faith and probably 6 billion text messages,” Browell said with a laugh. Now, they’d like to secure more funding and develop the model so it can be used for other stories in other places.