Virtual experiences could be central to capturing Black history through a new program

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

A vintage photograph of the 300 block of Indiana Avenue captures a moment in time — when the area was nationally recognized for its bustling Black-owned businesses, and arts and culture scene.

Some of the buildings likely would have been identified by Indiana Landmarks as historic sites worth saving — if they hadn’t already been demolished. With the exception of the Madame C.J. Walker Building, most of the black-owned buildings in the 1950s image, including the jazz clubs Sunset Terrace Ballroom and Royal Palm Gardens, no longer exist because of highway construction and modern urban development during the 1960s and 1970s.

However, Indiana Landmarks recently launched the Black Heritage Preservation Program, which effectively establishes a new concept for the nonprofit — recognizing the heritage of a place, whether or not a building still stands at the location.

People who may not have been familiar with the Black history of Indiana Avenue and other historically significant places like it will soon have the opportunity to gain an appreciation of their impact and influence in the state, said Eunice Trotter, who recently assumed the role of the program’s director.

Trotter, an author, journalist, and long-time community activist, said the new initiative is important because of the disappearance of many historically Black neighborhoods, schools, and businesses throughout the state through demolition or gentrification.

“It is extremely significant because so much of our history has been erased or ignored — even by ourselves,” Trotter said of Black residents. “We know it somewhat but, with each generation, we know even less. When you couple that with the tearing down of the physical evidence of that history, we become a history-less people. There’s no proof of anything that we’ve done, challenges we’ve overcome, or contributions that we’ve made.

“Those stories are important — particularly to our young people,” Trotter added. “They are evidence of our resilience, our determination, and our ability to pull together.”

Re-imagining a central mission

Indiana Landmarks, which was founded in 1960, previously had recognized the importance of focusing on historically significant Black sites through its African American Landmarks Committee, which was established in 1992.

Through its Black Heritage Preservation Program, which was funded by a $5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., and other financial commitments from private donors and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, it also recognizes the loss of many important buildings throughout the state’s history

As Trotter and committee members of the Indiana Landmarks’ Black Heritage Preservation Program start imagining how to capture the vitality and essence of historically Black physical structures, they have considered the possibilities of using innovative technology like QR codes, augmented reality, virtual reality interactive experiences, and hologram-like projections such as those used in the Indiana Historical Society’s exhibit Eva Kor: From Auschwitz to Indiana.

“My No. 1 goal is to tap into the use of augmented reality,” Trotter said. “I was really sold on that method of heritage preservation after visiting the EJI Museum in Alabama,” she said.

Some current possibilities include allowing a person to use their smartphone to access a QR code on a marker near a historically significant Black site to hear a recording about the history of a place or using augmented reality platforms to animate historic photographs, said Steve Mannheimer, who is Indiana Landmark’s chairman of the technology subcommittee for the Black History Preservation Program.

As technology advances, new ways of bringing history alive will continue to emerge, Mannheimer noted.

The latest artificial intelligence innovations include extensively interviewing elderly people about their experiences so that, through artificial intelligence, people can talk to them — even years after their death. The innovation through the USC Shoah Foundation is now capturing stories from Holocaust survivors.

Mannheimer said that the Black History Preservation Program represents a reckoning of the role that race has played in the history of the United States. “It’s not something that could be solved by a significant event such as the election of Barack Obama,” he said. “It’s an ongoing requirement for the future of this country.”

During a recent trip to Germany, Mannheimer said, he walked around Berlin and Munich where he saw extensive documentation of the Holocaust — memorials and tours primarily launched during the late 1960s as homage to victims and survivors.

“I’m Jewish, and it was just unsettling, disquieting on a profound level,” said Mannheimer, who included a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp on his trip. “As Americans, we have danced around this issue — the debt we have to pay for the treatment of African Americans. We have an obligation … working on this project seems like a step in the right direction for me.”

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