Examining Space of a Resting Place: GIS of a New York Cemetery
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The use of digital technologies for cultural heritage work is a rapidly expanding field of research and engagement (Kalay et al 2007). The array of digital techniques presents a bewildering array of possibilities for the heritage professional. The Virtual Rosewood Research Project (VRRP) presents one approach employing multiple technologies for public outreach allowing researchers to present, manage, and disseminate both tangible and intangible heritage. In this post, I discuss the use of archaeological visualization and digital storytelling for collaborative purposes in Rosewood, Florida.
The use of virtual world environments to represent archaeological contexts encompasses hundreds of projects around the world and plans for a peer-reviewed multimedia journal are in the works (Bawaya 2010). Early work in the 1990s focused on creating images and video representing prehistoric and monumental sites. In the last decade research has moved towards visualization, or inferring complete contexts from the incomplete data recovered during archaeological research (Barcelo 2002).
Digital storytelling has its roots in a series of workshops in Los Angeles during the early 1990s (Lambert 2009). These workshops proved so successful that a Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) was created shortly thereafter and remains the national center for working with digital media to tell personal stories (Lambert 2009:1-10). The impulse to share personal lives continues to characterize digital storytelling.
The Development and Destruction of Rosewood
Rosewood was settled in the mid-nineteenth century by a diverse group of people, and experienced rapid economic growth following the Civil War. Rosewood’s population was majority African American by the early twentieth century. By 1910, Rosewood’s population was eclipsed by the neighboring community of Sumner following the construction of a large sawmill complex approximately one mile west of Rosewood.
On New Year’s Day 1923, a white woman in Sumner fabricated a black assailant to hide her extramarital affair with a white man. A white mob formed and headed for Rosewood, encountering the home of Sam Carter. They interrogated Carter by hanging him from a tree by the neck, and when it seemed the mob might release him, a man leveled his gun at Carter’s face and ended the day with Carter’s lynching.
Two days later, whites in Sumner heard (or fabricated) rumors that the black assailant was with Sylvester Carrier. Carrier’s distrust of whites was well-known and before the night was out, two whites lay dead on his doorstep after attempting to set fire to his family’s home. By the sixth of January three other blacks had been brutally murdered and the white mob, now numbering in the hundreds, began the systematic burning of every black-owned home and building in Rosewood. A train was brought through town during this time to pick up women and children, who were hiding in the nearby swamps following the gun battle at the Carrier home. The train took dozens of families to towns like Otter Creek, Archer, and Gainesville where descendants live to this day.
My decision to investigate digital heritage was motivated by specific questions posed to me by descendants of Rosewood’s community. These began with deceptively simple questions such as “can you show me where my grandfather’s house was located?” These early engagements ranged towards more complex conversations centering on the exploration of new methods for “getting our story” to wider and younger audiences.
Workflow for Creating Virtual Rosewood
The first step in visualizing Rosewood involved reconstructing property boundaries by reviewing thousands of historic deeds in the local courthouse. There are no maps, directories, or other information about Rosewood’s spatial layout. Therefore, geographic information systems (GIS) were used to reconstruct the metes and bounds on hundreds of historic deeds dating between 1870 and 1930. Historic census, aerial photographs, oral histories, and preliminary archaeological investigations were added to the GIS. The resulting dataset provides the spatial template for the virtual world environment.
High cost and lack of training has, until recently, limited the use of 3D programs for archaeological visualization. Companies are creating educational licensing programs. For instance, Autodesk, the parent company for 3DS Max and AutoCAD, began offering free educational licenses in 2010 at their educational site. The structures were created using 3DS Max and are available as a virtual world environment via a web-based format developed with a game engine. Game engines are used to create video games, and are increasingly used by archaeologists to create interactive virtual world environments of archaeological contexts (Rua and Alvito 2011). Unity 3D was used to export the 3DS Max models to the web. The result is two-plus square miles of virtual land, which re-creates the spatial layout of Rosewood as it existed in 1922. Interpretive signs throughout the virtual world environment tell the story of Rosewood’s development and destruction.
Virtual Rosewood Museum in Second Life
In addition to the web-based virtual world environment, a Virtual Rosewood museum is available in the popular online world of Second Life. The basic design is that of a repurposed, historic building converted to a local history museum. Visitors explore the history of Rosewood through museum-like displays. The Virtual Rosewood Museum continues to attract students, educators, and the general public. In December 2011 I led a two-hour tour to the Virtual Pioneers, a group of educators who regularly meet in Second Life to explore the intersection of online worlds and social justice education.
Visitors to the Virtual Rosewood Museum in Second Life can also watch a 25 minute video exploring Rosewood’s history, which is also available at the VRRP website.
Digital Storytelling and Rosewood’s Heritage
Digital stories can be created with relatively little investment and freely delivered using the internet, making research immediately accessible to more people. The VRRP includes a 26 minute digital documentary (link) exploring the development and destruction of Rosewood, the lives of those who survived through oral histories, and an exploration of the various methods used to document the town.
A particularly touching moment in the documentary occurs when Robie Mortin describes meeting her father for the first time following the 1923 race riot. Mortin’s father recognized early on how the accusation of rape might turn into large scale violence. He sent Robie, who was seven at the time, to a nearby town with her older sister. After hearing about the destruction of Rosewood days later, and failing to meet their father, the two girls assumed the worst. They eventually made their way to Miami working as migrant laborers. Robie Mortin shares what happened one morning when she went to a newly constructed church.
“There was a ditch that separated Riviera Beach from the black neighborhood. There was a bridge across it, and there was a Hearst Chapel AME Church there. They had built that church right on our side of the ditch. So, we, my sister and I, went to church, and would you believe our daddy was there, and we didn’t know where he was, hadn’t seen him in months. We didn’t even know he was still alive, and there he was in the front of that church.” – Robie Mortin (2009)
The ability of digital storytelling to share touching moments like these with a wide audience is an important aspect of social justice education. Robie Mortin’s words, delivered in her soft, ninety-four year-old voice, touch the viewer in an unmistakable way. The emotional impact of her story demonstrates the trials, and in this one example, happy surprises which make a life scared by trauma bearable.
Discussion and Concluding Thoughts
The creation of a website for my research into Rosewood’s past – including a data warehouse with census records and oral history transcripts – has led to many unexpected engagements. This includes journalists, interested members of the public, and members of Rosewood’s multifaceted descendant communities. While the newspaper articles bring increased traffic to the VRRP website, it is the other engagements which demonstrate the collaborative potentials of new media for heritage. For instance, one property owner in the area where Rosewood was located contacted me after watching the digital documentary. His property is home to the African American cemetery in operation during Rosewood’s occupation. While allowing descendants to visit their ancestors’ graves, he has kept the property closed to academics after previous researchers misrepresented his involvement in their projects. At present, myself and Dr. James Davidson of the University of Florida are documenting the property and its value to various descendant communities.
The creation of new media represents a pedagogical toolkit. The new forms of knowledge produced by the synthesis between historical research and new media accomplish a number of things. It highlights the experiences of descendants and other interested parties, provides tools for critically engaging with history and media, and offers researchers new techniques for crafting the way historical knowledge is accessed and interpreted by others. In many ways, new media offers a new set of tools, ones not found in the master’s house (Lourde 1984:110-113) and potentially very liberating. New media is a constellation of approaches and technologies not regulated by gatekeepers and tradition – although certainly in dialogue with them. Obvious and sizable obstacles to full participation include the manifestation of a digital divide as well as the (re)inscription of negative identity politics (Nakamura 2008) within virtual spaces. Only time will tell if this optimistic viewpoint will produce transformative fruit or if mass standardization will assert itself and crush individual creativity and expression. I have chosen to be optimistic, and hope that the Virtual Rosewood Research Site motivates others to do the same.