Journey to Revive Zion Cemetery Through Immersive Technology
Groove Jones had the privilege of working with the Special Angels Investments, LLC 501(c)(3) to create an immersive and educational experience https://zioncemeteryremembrance.com/ centered around Zion Cemetery in Tampa, Florida, the oldest known African American Cemetery in the city.
There is a passionate commitment to transforming this historically significant and forgotten burial ground into an interactive teaching tool using emerging technology. Throughout the project, the dedication to shedding light on an important but often overlooked part of history was a key objective.
One significant challenge of this project was how to best create a commemorative digital experience about a location with a history crowded with oppression so that descendants of those buried in Zion can view and learn about what was taken from them. Through research of ceremonial artifacts, newspaper clippings, and witness accounts, we carefully brought forth a story to ensure that the user could comprehend and empathize with the historical context.
Groove Jones crafted an interactive, three-dimensional WebGL experience using Three.js technology. The journey begins in a space reminiscent of an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church.
To the left, users can explore maps of Zion Cemetery throughout its history, revealing the story of land transactions and transformations that eventually erased it from maps.
To the right, a scrollable timeline presents the history of Zion Cemetery with unarchived photos and articles, providing detailed accounts of the events that transpired over the years.
In the central section, the primary narrative unfolds in three stages: the founding of the Robles Pond area, including historic ceremonies to celebrate with deceased family, the Segregation Era, and the Present Day.
Users can tap on hot spots to reveal more information about the ceremonies that took place in the cemetery.
Fred Herns, the President of the Zion Cemetery Preservation & Maintenance Society, provided audio and video, which helped tell the story.
Robles Pond was a wood-framed school near the Zion cemetery that was attended by many East Tampa African American children. It was an all-Black school due to Jim Crow Laws that perpetuated racial segregation.
Robles Park Village was a white-only community that was constructed over Zion Cemetery. Nearly a decade later, African American Families were permitted to reside in the Robles Park Village.
This narrative guides users through the cemetery’s history, from its establishment to its destruction and the occupation of the space by housing projects. Each era is explained in detail, highlighting the events that led to the erasure of the past. The experience concludes with a call to action, urging users to contact their representatives and make a change.
Groove Jones leveraged a variety of technologies to create a multi-platform experience.
- Mobile Web Augmented Reality: Users can access the experience on their mobile devices, using AR to immerse themselves in the story.
- Full Desktop Interactive WebGL: The web version provides a comprehensive and interactive journey for users on desktop computers.
- Immersive Virtual Reality Story: VR technology allows for a fully immersive experience, transporting users into the world of Zion Cemetery.
A remarkable aspect of this project for Groove Jones was working with Special Angels Investments and uncovering the history of Zion Cemetery and similar cemeteries erased during the Jim Crow era. Additionally, the inclusion of one of our own crew member’s gospel-singing mothers added a level of authenticity and emotional resonance to the project.
From a technical standpoint, the ability to transform the story seamlessly across different digital experiences and create modular and transferable content that could adapt to various 3D software and web environments was a successful feat.
A Spoken Word VR Experience
Explore Zion Cemetery, an erased African American cemetery in Florida, through VR. This spoken word VR experience tells the real story of the lost souls at Zion Cemetery, destroyed during Jim Crow. A narration of a powerful poem by Ebony Payne-English, a poet, playwright, filmmaker, and educator from Duval County, FL guides it.
The experience includes original artwork and scarce documents that allow viewers to travel through the 20th century to see and feel the impact of racism on sacred land. The App uses hand tracking to allow the user to reach out and interact with the story without needing controllers.
Intentionally and illegally stolen from the Black community, Zion Cemetery was rediscovered in 2019 under the Robles Park Village apartment complex in Tampa, Florida. Zion Cemetery, believed to be Tampa’s first African American cemetery, was created in 1901 to serve the thriving African American community of Dobyville and Robles Pond. Ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists, and burial records suggest 382 people are buried in Zion Cemetery.
This VR experience allows participants to confront difficult truths about life in the Jim Crow South, understand the lasting impact of Jim Crow on today’s society, and memorialize the individuals buried at Zion Cemetery. The Zion Cemetery VR Experience is being released through the Meta VR App Lab – https://www.oculus.com/deeplink/?action=view&path=/app/9739772016097395
Ebony Payne-English’s website – http://www.ebonypayneenglish.com
Important Artifacts from Zion Cemetery
The team digitized artifacts found at the Zion Cemetery site, historical articles, and imagery of recent work to memorialize the location in order to create this experience.
Learn more About Special Angels Investments
Sacred places, such as cemeteries, deserve respect. Cemeteries bring together communities of the past and present. Special Angels was established to empower communities hoping to preserve their local cemeteries by connecting communities with cemetery experts. Special Angels Investments, LLC 501(c)(3) is dedicated to recentering marginalized cemeteries through holistic site preservation, protection, and education. https://www.specialangelscemeterypreservation.org
Learn more about WebGL – https://groovejones.com/web_deveopment_webgl_html5/