Joel Beeson, associate professor at West Virginia University Reed College of Media, is partnering with Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust to build BlackTimeMap in an ongoing effort to uncover and capture the hidden stories of African American veterans. The app will launch during the U.S. WWI Centennial in 2017 and is endorsed by the WWI Centennial Commission. The app will be available as a free download from Google Play on Android devices and the App Store on iOS devices.
Why the history is important
“The black veterans of WWI returned home to become foot soldiers for civil rights in America,” Beeson said. “The WWI black experience was the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.”
BlackTimeMap opens a window into these soldiers’ time to make sure their stories are told, their service is honored, and that the history lessons of their time are not lost. The black veteran experience in the shadow of Jim Crow racism parallels and continues to shed light on the current racial landscape in America in which we have witnessed the rise of reactionary movements against immigrants and people of color, growing income inequality, and the pressures of technological change.
“If we don't learn from the past how social and economic distress served to divide us, we are bound to repeat this cycle,” Beeson said.
The app will launch with virtual access to two cultural memorials of the African American experience in WWI and will release 24 additional sites during the U.S. WWI Centennial celebration. The initial sites are the Sgt. William E. Carter American Legion Post 16 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Kimball War Memorial building in McDowell County, West Virginia, a three-story Greek Revival structure built in 1928 by returning WWI veterans as a center of community life and to house the Luther Patterson American Legion Post 36.
"There's a whole lot of history that needs to be dug out and put out there so the whole world will know," said E. Ray Williams, a black World War II U.S. Army war veteran from Welch, West Virginia. Williams' father-in-law, Harry Neal, Sr., was one of the 11 WWI veterans to raise funds and build the Kimball Memorial in 1928.
Why virtual reality? Exploring empathy and perspective with 360° immersion
Virtual reality (VR) and new 360° technology immerses the viewer in an environment from a first-person perspective. The storytelling power of VR lies in its potential as a tool of empathy and for building bridges. VR can transport viewers to new locations and back in time. Augmented reality (AR) can provide critical context and annotation that bring new places, perspectives and time to life for the viewer. These new technologies create an important bridge between our world and a fading past.
The public’s role in BlackTimeMap
BlackTimeMap will provide tourists with the ability to navigate to physical memorials across the country. On location, either virtually or physically, visitors will be able to upload their personal stories, media, oral histories, letters and more to a virtual “wall” at the memorial site to add to the cultural and historical record.
Beeson served as director of the West Virginia Veterans Oral History project for the Library of Congress, and his current work in AR and VR is informed by two decades of research in race, representation and documentary studies. In 2014, Beeson launched the interactive website, thebookofwarpoems.com, about the WWI-era experience of two young black sisters from rural West Virginia. He produced and directed the 2008 documentary, “Fighting on Two Fronts: The Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans.”
Beeson is currently leading a collaborative initiative with Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, a historically black urban institution, to develop a Social Justice Media Project. This collaboration resulted in BridgingSelma.com and the virtual reality app, Fractured Tour. Beeson is also a principal in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media Innovation Center’s AR/VR StoryLab. You can read more about Beeson’s work in VR as a tool for empathy on MediaShift.
WVU Reed College of Media students have contributed to the project by conducting research and collecting archival content, creating 360° images of memorial sites, and helping with social media and community outreach.
Development of the app will begin in January 2016.
Risks and challenges
Community Engagement: We have a long history in working with community crowdsourcing, collecting veterans’ oral histories and audience engagement around veterans’ issues. This experience – and previous research in African American veterans history – helps prepare us for the challenges in acquiring, vetting and publishing archival content, especially across digital divides. Our experience in grassroots community organizing will help us maintain and coordinate local engagement and crowdsourcing at the identified memorial sites. Our work in digital training that focuses on very low threshold engagement with new technology will help us engage targeted audiences who are unfamiliar with mobile apps and especially AR and VR.
Technology: We are using the backend of a previously created open-source platform that enables location-based community profiles (mstreet.io) as part of the base code for this project, which facilitate development of the app.
Because we are working with new technology in AR and VR, we anticipate the persistent challenges that go along with developing in these evolving media. We have experience in mobile development and behavior, AR and VR and are acclimated to continuous problem solving that is part of producing a product that experiments with relatively new technologies.
Our approach is to create an elegant, simple product that is user-friendly, has a low-threshold for engagement across user skill sets, can be easily adapted and updated as needed, and that can grow as user-behavior acclimates to using AR and VR. Because VR and Google Cardboard are still relatively new ways to experience content, we will enable users to experience the app in 2-D, as well as provide YouTube demos of every site in 3-D so that audience members can have a stepping stone for engagement. We will use strategies we have successfully used in our work in rural and aging communities to help diffuse the product in accessible forms, but we are hoping that the use of AR and VR will help engage a young audience in the critical history of this time in new ways.
Copyright: Our team confirms usage rights for historical photos, and we are acquiring 360° of memorial sites ourselves as part of our own production process.
Be one of the first to test out the beta BlackTimeMap app! You also receive a get a Google cardboard with the BlackTimeMap logo, a reproduction WWI 93rd Division "Red Hand" patch, and a Twitter shout-out!