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‘Hidden in Plain Site’ VR experience uncovers local stories

Historic image of Black American crowds at The Strand in Roanoke, later the Lincoln Theatre
Collection of the Historical Society of Western Virginia
Black Americans used to gather on Roanoke's Henry Street, now the Henry Street Historic District, for local entertainment.

J. Dontrese Brown, founder of marketing agency BROWNBAYLOR, considers himself a history lover. But his passion for history is recent, rooted in the need to know more about his own past and a desire to ensure his legacy impacts how history is told in the future.

Hidden in Plain Site is a web-based platform that educates the public through a narrative of visual interpretation — from historical photos to their current place in the world. Created by Brown, Dean Browell and David Waltenbaugh, the partnership’s focus is to help use virtual reality to put users in someone else’s shoes and change their relationship with the stories all around.

“What we do is, we collect archival images and then we use virtual reality, film and video and technology to orient an individual where they are,” Brown said, “and then transitioning that point of where they are, to a historical point in history.”

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Brown said they wanted to add to a social justice narrative from a different perspective.

“I realized [that] in the city of Richmond, there's a lot of stories here that aren't being told by the culture that needs to tell them," Brown said. “So, we focused on lifting those voices when we started to identify what we wanted to do. As we started to do that, we started to realize how important that is for any historically underrepresented group.”

As of now, HiPS is available in Richmond. There is also an effort underway to  make the experience available in Roanoke.

In Roanoke, Brown said HiPS plans to focus on sites that are important to the Black experience, including a Black neighborhood “they completely destroyed” to build a civic center and the recreation center, Dreamland, which was the only recreation center for Black Americans in its time. According to Brown, “We're going to talk about Henrietta Lacks. We're going to talk about the Borough Memorial Hospital, which was the first black hospital for Black Americans in Roanoke. We're going to talk about the Old Lick cemetery, which was destroyed to have an interstate run through.”

Brown said he’s seen the impact of HiPS firsthand, when people who go through the virtual reality experience become emotional and reminisce about the past.

“Once individuals start to understand the true history, behind either their culture or some other historically underrepresented culture, then we understand that there is an opportunity for us to use that history to lift those voices. But then as a society, as a community, as a country, [we can] come together and start to move forward into creating a more equitable place for everyone,” Brown said.

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