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VR Project Revives Razed Black Neighborhoods in Charlotte, N.C.

A Johnson C. Smith University project will give individuals a view into the destruction of historical Black neighborhoods of Charlotte, N.C., through virtual reality tech. The project is expected to be completed in 2022.

Charlotte's Greenville neighborhood razing
Charlotte neighborhoods like Greenville were razed in urban renewal efforts, forcing families out of their communities.
Photo courtesy of Pop and Marie Sadler.
A new project led by Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) historians will allow Charlotte, N.C., residents to experience a digital replication of razed Black neighborhoods.

Other cities have offered versions of augmented reality tours, but JCSU’s approach will involve a VR component.

JCSU partnered with Duke University early on and later connected with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) to bring together technical expertise to achieve the vision. Led by JCSU Electronic Resources Librarian Tekla Ali Johnson and JCSU Archivist and Digital Manager Brandon Lunsford, the project will create a digital replication of Charlotte neighborhoods that were razed in urban renewal efforts in the '60s and '70s.
Historic Greenville neighborhood in Charlotte
The Greenville neighborhood is one that was razed in urban renewal efforts.
Photo courtesy of Pop and Marie Sadler.
Three levels to the project will ensure all members of the community will be able to learn about the neighborhoods, Johnson explained. The first will be a visualization of historical maps, essentially a two-dimensional site that is web-based and accessible to anyone with Internet access. The second will utilize augmented reality with photographs and models of historical buildings, giving people a kind of drone’s eye view as they go down the streets and zoom in to various locations. The third level will involve virtual reality goggles, with the goal of giving someone the feeling of being in a neighborhood.

JCSU will offer a free exhibit. The map digitization component is approaching completion, but Lunsford said it will be about a year before the public will see the final product.

The other component of the project is the stories of the people who lived there, Lunsford said. These stories will be told through recorded oral histories from people who lived and worked in these neighborhoods, all to be incorporated into the experience. COVID-19 delayed this piece, but as vaccinations have recently become more widely available, Lunsford hopes he will be able to resume work on this part soon.

“It’s always very important to tell the story of these neighborhoods through the eyes of the people that lived it, and not as university archivists and historians,” explained Lunsford. “So when there is any narration or story, for the most part, we want it to be oral histories from the mouths of the people who were involved.”

The project focuses on neighborhoods, including Brooklyn and Greenville, that were razed primarily during the 1960s as part of Charlotte’s urban renewal efforts.
Brooklyn map digitized by UNC Charlotte
This map was digitized by University of North Carolina at Charlotte to depict Brooklyn’s urban renewal zone.
Courtesy of Inez Moore Parker Archives at JCSU.

These communities were intentionally targeted during the Civil Rights era, displacing thousands of Black families as shown by city documents, according to Johnson. The documents note accommodations for the small number of white families that lived in these areas. Johnson said that seeing this racialized thinking spelled out so openly brought to mind similar historic events, including tragedies involving the Indigenous peoples of North America and the Bantustans in South Africa.

Lunsford described the history as a parallel to what is being seen today in a lot of neighborhoods with gentrification. In some ways, he explained, this project is an attempt to show Charlotte citizens that people of color in the city have been forced out of their communities historically and that it is happening again.

Project funding came primarily from three sources. The National Park Service supplied funds for digitizing the maps. The Knight Foundation offered money for the community involvement piece. The National Archives invested in technological resources and other research needs.

The project took off about two years ago when Lunsford, who had already been working on mapping projects for JCSU, was joined by Johnson, who shared an interest in telling Charlotte’s urban renewal story based on historical archives.

Duke University and its digital humanities lab has played a huge role in creating the technology, using tools like GIS mapping. As Lunsford described, the tools one can use to digitize historical maps have become more user-friendly, making digital storytelling more conceivable. The project looks to examples from Europe, like Rome Reborn®, but it is the first of its kind in the United States.

Duke University engineers are working closely with JCSU historians to determine specific schematics of the project, aligning the technological and historical components, and they will present various possible applications as the project develops further.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.