Hidden in Plain Site: an emotional virtual experience explores Richmond’s Black history
David Waltenbaugh, Dean Browell and Dontrese Brown commute to work in downtown Richmond passing by familiar historical markers and monuments. But it is what they don’t see during their daily travels that prompted them to collaborate on Hidden In Plain Site: Richmond, a website and virtual reality experience chronicling the Black experience in the river city since the arrival of the first enslaved people.
The idea for the project started with Brown, who began researching Richmond’s Black history last summer after the death of George Floyd. Brown learned about Lumpkin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom, where slaves were held before being sold.
“I drove by that spot every day and didn’t know anything about it. It was near my office,” he said. “I saw there was a missing element of the Black experience not being told. I wanted to tell it in our voice in the right way so Richmond and the country would understand what Blacks experienced.”
Brown, a creative strategy and marketing professional, was friends with Browell, who was working with Waltenbaugh on another virtual project at the time. The three began brainstorming, questioning how they could create something to challenge the perspective people have as they drive by Lumpkin’s Jail and other hidden sites in the city.
“These are interesting sites that aren’t spoken of,” said Browell, an adjunct professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business who is in market research and digital ethnography. “As a writer of the narrative, it’s important how one looks at history. How can the narrative be a portal to change your perspective and have you want to read more?”
Waltenbaugh, a VCU School of Business alum, is the founder of Root VR, which creates virtual reality-based tools. He, Browell and Brown landed on a project that combines storytelling, archival material and virtual reality to bring people digitally to locations throughout Richmond. They chose sites based on what they were historically — many are located in parking lots today. Along with scouting, they worked with The Valentine, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Library of Virginia to find archival photos.
Just a few steps away from Lumpkin’s Jail is a place of “immeasurable pain,” Brown says in the virtual tour. Here, slaves were purchased and hanged. Along the elevation of an overpass sits replicas of the outdoor slave auction tools. (Courtesy of Hidden In Plain Site)
An emotional journey
Visitors to Hidden In Plain Site: Richmond are prompted to select either the desktop or virtual reality experience (the latter for those with VR headsets). Upon selection, they are provided instructions for how to navigate the digital tool, then are virtually transported into an interface similar to street view in Google Maps. Voiceover narration, provided by Brown, helps users navigate to locations in Richmond. At designated spots, archival images and drawings are laid over the scene, allowing visitors to step back in time, as Brown describes what once was. The full journey across the city — a moving and immersive experience — takes about 20 minutes.
Brown, Browell and Waltenbaugh initially had no idea where the project would go, but they had a vision.
“We were creating it as we were walking it,” Brown said. “It was completely heart wrenching — the pain and the suffering my Black ancestors experienced. How did I not know about this? It felt overwhelming.”
He was filled with a sense of pride when he thought about the opportunity to tell that story as well as when he realized the “resilience and tenacity of my ancestors.”
“We would tell their stories,” he said.
From 1904 when it was known as “Miller’s,” the Eggleston Hotel was one of many longtime Black businesses that earned Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood the nickname “The Birthplace of Black Capitalism.” The hotel’s proprietors also worked to support protests and social change, including posting bail for those arrested at sit-in protests. (Courtesy of Hidden In Plain Site)
Walking with Brown to the ancestral burial ground, now a large, open grassy field overshadowed by neighboring Interstate 95, was incredibly powerful for the group. “The gravity of the three of us alone seeing that expanse and never knowing the history of that site hit me on such an emotional level,” Waltenbaugh said.
He said he had the same feeling when he visited a concentration camp in Munich, Germany, standing on ground that had been the site of tragic and horrific events.
“The last time I experienced that, I had to go halfway around the world,” he said. “The sites we scouted are also located on holy ground, but they are here in Richmond, my home.”
Waltenbaugh had walked by the expansive piece of land hundreds of times before, but “now experiencing it, knowing what happened and the incredible emotional experience … it will change the way I view the city and the way I feel when I drive or walk by,” he said.
“When people experience the city, we want to give them pause to reflect differently on the history they are walking by.”
As they scouted locations, they held up each archival photo and matched it to the current site. “We wanted to find a way to create an emotional, empathetic moment,” Waltenbaugh said.
They made a conscious decision to start the virtual experience with something very emotional like Lumpkin’s Jail and a slave burial site, Waltenbaugh said.
“We also wanted to show the incredible community around Jackson Ward to break up the heavy emotion,” he said.
Other locations include the Hippodrome, Maggie Walker’s house and the Adams Express Company, related to Henry (Box) Brown, who escaped to freedom in 1849 by mailing himself in a wooden crate to abolitionists in Philadelphia via Adams Express. All the sites begin with current views and go back in the past. The exception is the Lee Monument, which starts in the past and ends in the present. The monument, a tribute to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, served as the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter social justice protests last summer.
“It was a powerful way to bookend the modern-day statue and pay tribute to the victims of the past,” Waltenbaugh said.
Bringing Hidden In Plain Site to the world
The process for creating Hidden In Plain Site: Richmond was completed in less than six months, from June to November 2020.
“Technology is the great equalizer, making this accessible and free … in the most amazing virtual reality,” Brown said.
The process and platform could be replicated in other cities, the team said.
“We recognize these stories exist across the country, similar storylines about marginalized people — indigenous peoples, women’s equality, the LBGTQ community,” Waltenbaugh said. “We are expanding outside of Richmond. We can do storytelling on a national level. We would love to do this in dozens of cities around the country, enable them to tell their own stories through this lens.”
Hidden In Plain Site, now a business focused on impact-driven storytelling, is establishing partnerships with other cities such as Charleston, South Carolina. The business was chosen as a project for VCU’s Executive M.B.A. program this spring. “We have five to six Executive M.B.A. students coming through who will be working with us to develop a strategy for national expansion,” Browell said.
Students started working on the project in January.
“In choosing a project we look for impact,” said Butch (M.K.) Sarma, director of the Executive M.B.A. program. “This project is pretty compelling. It appeals on a lot of levels.”
Education is an important focus for the business. It is currently working with Discovery Education, an educational component of the Discovery Channel brand that provides digital curriculum resources, to get Hidden In Plain Site into the system.
“They have 30 million viewers in the U.S. and 15 million outside of the U.S. in public and private school districts,” Browell said. “Teachers can come in and create lesson plans. That has tremendous potential to take the Richmond episode and future ones to a massive user base around the world.”