Richmond’s first snow of the season lightly covered the ground as I prepared for my interview with Dontrese Brown, one of the creators of Hidden In Plain Site: Richmond, a VR exploration of distinct, but easy to overlook sites around Richmond, VA, that tells the story of the Black experience. As I watched the white, icy, specks cover my yard, it was easy to forget the grass and dirt just beneath it. Which, seemed fitting considering that Brown is trying to rediscover what has been buried just below us.
The virtual reality (VR) project, created by Brown, Dean Browell and David Waltenbaugh, begins with parking lots as a common factor. Dontrese Brown and co-creators noticed a pattern of barren lots over enslaved people’s graves, auction houses, and hanging sites.
“The ones that carry the most pain and suffering are erased,” stated Brown.
When he looks at how marginalized people have been held back by systemic ideals and redlining, Brown has formed the opinion that Black and Brown history is purposefully being erased and that future projects will keep revealing this pattern in history.
The viewer navigates through HIPS by first visiting locations associated with pain and suffering. The African Burial Ground, Richmond's first municipal cemetery, was designated for the burials of Black people. The grounds were also known for being the site of the city gallows where many of the members of the slave revolt of 1800 were hanged, including the organizer, 24-year old enslaved blacksmith Gabriel. This site was paved over, but through the outcry of community members, was dug up by the city and covered with only dirt and grass. The project then showcases the perseverance of the black community in historic Jackson Ward, through the growth of arts and business. Finally, ending at the Lee statue where a new generation is beginning to use their voice. Brown and his partners hope that revisiting these sites through the HIPS experience will help prepare us for a better future.
“The story of the Black American experience has not been told by the culture that needs to tell it,” expressed Brown. Through collective education there is growth.
Education alone won’t build a better future. Brown brought up issues in the Black and Brown community that still need mending before moving forward: criminal justice reform, education reform, housing concerns, redlining, mental and physical health of the community, food deserts, and making workforce available for people reentering society from incarceration from low charges like marijuana.
Here were just a few issues listed, but before getting to these items the conversation needs to begin with an apology and accountability.
“Acknowledge what you have done,” demands Brown, “You screwed us over, and we literally built this country.”
Our country has spent so much time and effort erasing its painful past with parking lots and luxurious waterfront communities like Richmond's Rocketts Landing, which was the port of disembarkment for those enslaved and forced to build this country. This should be remembered as a historical part of our U.S. history.
“You wanna talk about five years of the importance from all these frickin statues going down Monument Ave,” says an exasperated Brown. “When you got history of over 400 years that you don’t want to give any respect to? No, that’s got to change.”
Dontrese Brown believes that our elected government, mayor and city council, need to give these sites the respect it deserves. Richmond can’t be the great city it has the potential to be until we fully acknowledge our past, include the whole narrative, allow change into the conversation, and collectively come together.
He is hopeful that Hidden In Plain Site: Richmond will inspire viewers to go deeper and engage with the city more. He believes that grassroots organizations like, The Cheats Movement, Black women led The Jackson Ward Collective, Hamilton Glass, Radio B, Dream For Purpose, and even Richmond Now!, should continue to take the challenge to uplift our Black and Brown community and get them more involved.
The Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia has been a major partner to HIPS and will house a permanent installation of the growing VR experience. Unlike many museums in Richmond with free entrance, the Black History Museum charges admission because they do not get the financial support to be free. Brown and co-creators want to keep Hidden in Plain Site: Richmond free and accessible and are working on solutions for people to visit such an important museum and view their project.
Dontrese Brown was shy to say he is an activist because others have put their lives on the line like John Lewis, Arthur Ashe, and the Virginia Union University students known as the Richmond 34, who participated in a nonviolent sit-in at the lunch counter of Thalhimers department store in downtown Richmond, Virginia on February 22, 1960. He would rather be known as a “Social Instigator” believing HIPS is only a piece in the narration of social activism to push people to dig deeper.
Only time will tell what impact Hidden In Plain Site: Richmond will have, but presently, we here at Richmond Now! find it a very valuable tool to break the cycle of erased information and culture.-
Visit www.hiddeninplainsite.org to select your best viewing option for this free Virtual Reality experience uncovering Richmond’s past, hidden in plain sight.