| Bluffton Today
Students and faculty from the University of South Carolina Beaufort are finding new ways to tell the stories of African Americans in Beaufort County during the Reconstruction era.
The university is employing interactive technologies to share the story of the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the U.S. and to dynamically present Harriet Tubman, Robert Smalls and other historic people and events. The technologies include including artificial intelligence, virtual reality, gaming and 360-degree photography.
“My students are working on real digital projects currently in development at USCB that will be for the public,” said Dr. Brent Morris, who teaches digital history and is director of the USCB Institute for the Study of the Reconstruction Era. “If you can harness technology that is second nature for students who were born into a digital world, that’s how you get people’s attention.”
Morris said interactive study and presentation of the past is popular with young people because it’s more dynamic than reading history books. And students enjoy working on projects that will be used by the community.
This summer, a group of K-12 teachers from around the country will put on virtual reality headsets to interact with tours of Beaufort County historic sites built by Morris’ students.
The summer institute for teachers is usually held in-person, but it will be virtual this year because of COVID-19. As part of the National Endowment for the Humanities grant that funds the program, each teacher will receive a virtual reality headset by mail and the group will be able gather daily in a virtual meeting room.
Using a 360-degree camera to take photos is one of the first steps in building the virtual reality tours. Liz Erickson, a sophomore majoring in history, experimented with one recently on the university’s Bluffton campus to learn how it works.
The software that comes with the camera stitches together multiple photos or videos captured by separate lenses, and its selfie stick disappears when the images are merged.
“I’m really excited,” said Erickson, who graduated from Hilton Head Island High School. “You’re seeing it through a screen but it looks so realistic.”
Digital technology makes Beaufort County’s rich history accessible to more people, said Tucker Perry, a senior from Summerville who is majoring in history.
“I’m from South Carolina, but we didn’t learn this in high school,” he said.
For their virtual tour projects, students can choose to spotlight Mitchelville or one of the many sites in northern Beaufort County’s Reconstruction Era National Historic Park, part of the National Park System.
The sites include the Emancipation Oak, where freed slaves witnessed the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation; Camp Saxton, where African-American volunteers trained for service in the Union army; and Darrah Hall at Penn Center, among others.
Faculty from USCB and Florida Atlantic University are also creating a sophisticated augmented reality tour application that will immerse visitors in Mitchelville’s history and culture.
The 3-D simulation of the town was created in the Unity game engine, said Dr. Brian Canada, chair of USCB’s Department of Computer Science, who is working on this project.
He said tourists will be able to literally follow in the footsteps of figures from history, pick up and examine virtual 3-D artifacts, and interact with historical personalities including Gen. Ormsby Mitchel and a fictitious Mitchelville resident — to be played by Gullah singer and educator Dr. Marlena Smalls.
The augmented reality tour will feature Gullah-Geechee storytelling and dance performances to make the experience engaging for visitors to Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, located on Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island.
The nonprofit’s executive director, Ahmad Ward, is excited about the collaboration and the potential for virtual reality self- or docent-guided tours at the park.
“The goal is to present Reconstruction history as both educational and entertaining for visitors, while digitally preserving its cultural assets for future generations,” he said.
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