Points of View:
Rediscovering and Interpreting the Vanished African American and Multiethnic Communities of South East Ohio
Hidden in the shadows of contemporary South East Ohio and the adjacent regions of West Virginia and Kentucky are landscapes of vanished communities and the presence of generations of little known lives. Stretching back to the early 19th century, this territory has been the ground upon which multiethnic settlements have risen, flourished and disappeared, and where individuals and families of African American, European, and Native decent have cooperated and struggled through significant chapters of the American story. The collected history of these communities and families is a patchwork quilt of fragments and glimpses, in documents and memories of family lore and legend. It is also dimensional, with trails connecting persons, places and times. In those connections are the legacies of those now vanished, but not entirely gone communities.
The main humanities themes to be presented include the following: the Underground Railroad and Abolitionism in this region that encompasses both free and slaveholding states; development of enterprise and communities in the region from the early 19th century to the 1920’s and the transformations wrought by time and circumstance; the role of civic, religious and social/fraternal organizations; the rise of the mine workers union movement; African Americans in the military; lynching and Klan terror; the law and higher education; ethno-medicine and folk traditions; and the trans-generational legacy of families. The prototype will focus on the vanished African American and multi-ethnic communities of Poke Patch, the Lett Settlement, Black Fork, Gallipolis, Athens, Albany and Renville in SE Ohio.
Our goal is convey this history and legacy to a global audience in an evocative and informing synthesis of archival remnants, memories, humanities scholarship, and the expanding capabilities of synthetic worlds.
When fully implemented this project will have three main components.
The first is an immersive environment in the synthetic world Second Life. This interactive installation will weave together the fragments of artifact and memory to present an interpretive reflection of the region’s past and the contextual perspective for understanding it.
This mode of presentation, with its avatar-driven nature, distinctive design capabilities, and global live audience, affords unique opportunities for not only accessing a collection of artifacts and stories, but for creating an immersive experience that enhances understanding and appreciation of this region, its people and history in ways not possible with other modes (broadcast, physical gallery installation). The second component of this project is a series of symposia, at multiple institutional sites and in Second Life, at which the design team will present and discuss this project with humanities faculty, students, practitioners and community members. The focus of the symposia will be exploring new frontiers for humanities scholarship and research, audience development, and extending the educational experience enabled by immersive environments. Third, community outreach through libraries and mobile devices.
The Second Life component will be a dynamic three-dimensional environment with interior and exterior spaces that can be intuitively navigated by the visitor avatar. These spaces will be interpretative renderings of particular places and times of historical significance in the region’s history and geography. The visitor avatar’s movement in the space triggers visual, audio and character avatar events. Tableaux suggesting period landscapes and locations will combine interactive 3D & 2D objects with high-resolution imagery and animations. Through the immersive surroundings and interactivity, the visitor will have a sense of immediacy, agency, and discovery.
The humanities content, consisting of archival photos and documents, video oral histories, and contextual elements both historical and contemporary will be embedded in the dynamic interactive environment, and accessed by interacting with objects and navigation choices. The visitor avatar might open a book, turn its pages, and read a narrative with images. As the avatar passes a framed portrait on a wall, the portrait might become animated and speak. The visitor might turn on a vintage radio and listen to a broadcast from 1939. Throughout the environment are paths, roads, alleys, and waterways. These help guide the visitor through places and times, and also connect themes and stories.
Three-dimensional and two-dimensional maps will be found throughout the environment. They will locate the visitor in place and time, and be interactive portals to embedded contextual information such as period news accounts and links to reference sources. Maps will also chart families’ events and timelines. An animated map will show the main flows of the Underground Railroad, across the Ohio River from Kentucky and (West) Virginia, throughout SE Ohio and northward to Lake Erie and Canada. Maps of the installation plan itself will also function as teleport hubs, offering instant transport to another location in the installation.
Time capsules, in the form of an old steamer trunk, cigar box or other place/time appropriate container, will be discovered in the scenes and tableaux. The visitor can open these containers, and receive note cards with text and images that elaborate and extend the themes and stories of the area in which it is found. Among time capsule items will be ‘then and now’ compositions, with vintage and contemporary views of the same location.
A key feature of this synthetic world environment will be the character avatars that populate it. These characters will be live (person-driven), and scripted (limited artificial intelligence), and both will interact with visitors. The live avatars will assist visitors as guides and docents, answering questions about exploring the installation and providing additional information and insight about the content. The scripted characters will tell stories and give information and suggestions, responding to visitor proximity and interaction. Live character avatars involve humanities content experts directly with the visitor’s experience, and have several impacts. The spontaneous interaction with visitors intensifies the immersive experience, and engages the visitor with the environment in a relaxed and intuitive manner. The live presence requires scheduling, both regular fixed times and by appointment. Another impact is the development of dramatic scenes and reenactments, performed by live and scripted character avatars. These performances could be part of scheduled tours, lectures, etc.
The symposia component of the fully implemented project will extend the reach and significance of the synthetic world installation and the interdisciplinary collaborative process that will produce it.
This project is significant to the humanities in three principal respects. First, the SE Ohio region is significant not only for its place in 20th century North American ethnic history, but also as a region where rural and urban African American family histories intersect. This represents an ideal research site to investigate recurring themes and histories of African American experiences in rural and urban settings. Secondly, this study illustrates how personal contact with participants who reside in a declining population in rural African American communities in the United States can influence the research agendas of humanities scholars.
The humanistic power of oral histories will be realized through the application of fieldwork techniques in exploring local culture. This study’s examination of the religious, work, educational, recreational, and social life experiences of the residents will not only explore historical and contemporary cultural traditions and values of the residents and their families in these rural communities in Southeastern Ohio, but it will also call attention to the to increase institutional and individual interest in the humanities and oral history research concerning rural African American communities. NEH funding for this project will help to address fundamental question about the past, the present, and the future. The intergenerational perspective of the project is expected to cultivate interest in oral history traditions among community residents, students and scholars. The project will provide a focal point for discussing issues of African American cultural traditions in rural communities, and cultural diversity issues in the United States.
This project is a prototype for developing interdisciplinary humanities teaching/learning pedagogy and practice.
Current Project Team:
Ronald Stephens, PhD, Chair, African American Studies, Ohio University
Katherine Milton, Ph D, Director, @Lab
Philip Mallory Jones, MFA, Lead Design Artist, @Lab
Deanda Johnson, MA, Coordinator, African American Research & Service Institute, Ohio University
Keith Griffler, PhD, University of Buffalo
Stephen Marc, digital artist, URR
Deborah Mack, founding director NURFC
Henry Burke, URR, author
Vibert Cambridge, PhD
National Park Service Network to Freedom
Wayne National Forest