College of Media professor brings
forgotten stories to a worldwide audience through new technology
Imagine yourself standing on a street corner in the South Side of present day Chicago.
There doesn’t seem to be anything extraordinary about this spot—there are buildings,
cars driving by. Then suddenly, your surroundings change. You’re in the middle
of the 1919 “Red Summer,” a place where post-World War I social and racial tensions
are high. You’re witnessing a confrontation outside of an old lunch room and cigar
You’re looking at an old photo of a black WWI veteran and a white militiaman.
You’re looking at the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, by the end of which 38 would be dead, more than 500 injured and 1,000 black families left homeless.
Forgotten stories like this one are being made available to students nation-wide through immersive storytelling technology thanks to the work of Joel Beeson, an associate professor at the WVU Reed College of Media.
Through an official partnership between the College’s Media Innovation Center and the Google Cultural Institute, Beeson is an invited beta partner, storyteller and producer.
Beeson’s current project, “WWI Through the Eyes of the Chicago Defender ,” is bringing history to life through virtual reality. The VR project takes viewers on a tour of WWI-era United States as seen through the eyes of the nation’s most influential black weekly newspaper at that time.
The project has been commissioned for Google Expeditions, an app that enables teachers to take students on immersive, virtual journeys around the world without having to leave their classrooms. On Beeson’s Expedition, students will follow stories encompassing broad themes from that era including the Great Migration, the struggle for civil rights, and the individual story of the 370th Infantry Regiment, formerly the "Old 8th" Illinois National Guard unit, the only entirely black combat unit during World War I commanded by black officers.
“For this project, we’re using new technology that really wasn’t intended for what we are doing,” explained Beeson. “This technology was designed for gaming and entertainment, and we’re adapting it to engage communities that have been historically marginalized from authorship of stories.”
By inserting a smartphone into a Google Cardboard headset and wearing it over their eyes, students will “travel” to the modern-day locations of important events from the past reported by the Chicago Defender . Historical artifacts like photos, newspaper articles and video footage will pop up on the screen.
“I am always excited when we are able to use new technology such as mixed reality, augmented reality or virtual reality to bring history and missing stories to light for new audiences,” said Dana Coester, associate professor and creative director of the College’s Media Innovation Center. “Joel's Google Expedition is an example of bringing history to life in situ with deep context that spans time and place. And, in a way that excites and engages young viewers with a history that is at risk of being forgotten.”
While the technology itself is ground-breaking, Beeson says that what’s really innovative is how he is using it to give new audiences a better understanding of and appreciation for their historical past.
“Innovation comes out of problem-solving and being open to how you can tell stories to create new knowledge,” said Beeson. “For example, it might be easiest to document a story by writing it, but with VR and Augmented Reality, we can engage more people with the story by letting them experience it [almost] first-hand.”
Central to the project is the involvement of Beverly and Eugene Scott, a Vietnam War veteran. Beverly was a former reporter and columnist for the Defender while her husband, Eugene, was the last publisher of the daily newspaper. They are both writing and editing the content for the project and narrating the experience.
"Collaborating with the Scotts has been an incredible experience. Colonel Scott has keen insights into the experience of black veterans,” explained Beeson. “Beverly brings an emotional, intimate perspective to this history that a white researcher like me just cannot bring to the work.”
In addition to telling the national story of the WWI-era through the eyes of the Chicago Defender, the partnership with Google has allowed Beeson to also bring stories to a worldwide audience that are closer to home
Beeson’s virtual exhibit “Soldiers of the Coalfields: The Hidden Stories of Black Appalachians in WWI” was one of 100 stories highlighted by the Google Cultural Institute in celebration of Black History Month. The project was featured on the Google Arts & Culture website alongside institutions like the National African American Museum of History and Culture, the National Archives, The Smithsonian and The King Center.
It might be easiest to document a story by writing it, but with VR and Augmented Reality, we can engage more people with the story by letting them experience it [almost] first-hand.
JOEL BEESON, associate professor
The online gallery chronicles the stories of African Americans who migrated to McDowell County, West Virginia, in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines and then went on to serve in the U.S. military. The town of Kimball is home to one of the nation’s earliest World War I memorials honoring black soldiers.
While “Soldiers of the Coalfields” was also commissioned by Google, Beeson’s research on the subject began nearly 10 years ago. He led a class project to create a photo exhibit for the Kimball War Memorial that evolved into a community project supported by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. This work led to a collaboration with the United States World War I Centennial Commission and eventually the partnership with Google.
The Google Cultural Institute is a nonprofit initiative created in 2011 to partner with select cultural organizations around the world to showcase a range of curated cultural objects, from artworks to artifacts to photographs.
“WWI Through the Eyes of the Chicago Defender” is scheduled to launch this fall, with several community engagement events in Chicago Public Schools. The project will coincide with this year's WWI Centennial Commemoration that culminates on Veteran's Day, November 11, which was originally named "Armistice Day" for the day WWI ended in Europe in 1918. Teachers will be able to download the Google Expeditions app for Android or iOS and lead the class using a tablet, while students view it with a smartphone and headphones with Google Cardboard or any virtual reality headset.