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Activists protest Confederate monuments with virtual Black history memorials

When Juneteenth revelers walk through the county courthouse plaza in Florence, Alabama, this year, they will be able, for the first time, to see something other than the 20-foot-tall Confederate monument that has dominated the public square since the height of Jim Crow.

The marble statue dedicated in 1903 as an ode to white supremacy will still be there, impervious to years of efforts by local activists first to contextualize it, then to have it removed. But in an act that is part protest, part education, anyone will be able to hold their cellphone up to the statue and, by activating a cutting-edge augmented reality app, see instead a monument come to life of one of several figures essential to the Black historical experience.

The experience will be unveiled in Florence on June 17 as part of Juneteenth celebrations organized by Project Say Something, a social justice nonprofit founded in the town in 2014. It is a partnership between the organization, which has built a track record of shaping policy statewide on issues from the right to protest to the rights of child care providers, and the New York-based tech nonprofit Kinfolk.

The augmented reality app developed by the tech nonprofit, also called Kinfolk, allows people to use their smartphone’s camera to place a monument wherever they wish, then see and walk around it. The app, which gives viewers the sensation of experiencing virtual monuments in three-dimensional space, includes histories, interviews about the historical figures, even music related to them.

“It is a creative form of resistance,” said Camille Bennett, the businesswoman who founded Project Say Something after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Over the past seven years, the group has, as part of a broad campaign of reclaiming Black history and promoting social and economic justice, advocated through legal means for the removal of the Confederate statue. In response, the group has endured threats of violence, racist online messages and, in 2017, an appearance by hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan at an event where Bennett was speaking.

Project Say Something and Kinfolk are unveiling the app this weekend in honor of Juneteenth, a holiday that marks June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, about two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, to tell enslaved Black people that the Civil War had ended and they were free. Granger’s announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln.

Juneteenth has increasingly been recognized officially by state governments in recent years, and President Biden signed a bill in 2021 establishing Juneteenth National Independence Day as a federal holiday.

“Juneteenth serves as a day to celebrate freedom in the Black community, and to recommit ourselves to the removal of public symbols that honor those who fought to maintain slavery,” said Tafeni English-Relf, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Alabama state office. “Juneteenth is a time to recognize that the peculiar institution of slavery in the United States has ended. But it is also a time to confront the entrenchment of racism and oppression in our systems of government, education, housing, voting, labor, health care and justice that endures more than a century after the last remaining enslaved Black Americans were freed. We applaud Project Say Something and Kinfolk for their innovative approach to recognizing and uplifting the historical and ongoing struggle for freedom, justice and equity for Black people in America.”

For years, the SPLC has been pushing for the U.S. to reckon with the racist history and damaging impact of Confederate monuments across the country. The SPLC has supported community efforts and made recommendations on a systemic level for the military to address its own history of honoring Confederate figures.

Project Say Something’s efforts to have the Confederate statue removed in Florence have met obstacle after obstacle in the legal arena. Most impervious to the group’s efforts has been a state law signed by Gov. Kay Ivey in 2017 that bans the moving of monuments more than 40 years old.

These obstacles, Bennett said, have forced the activists to find another way.

“The truth is, if you want to take down a monument, you can either choose to creatively navigate the political landscape, or you can get a felony for taking it down yourselves,” Bennett said. “Those are the choices that we have, so we’re playing the cards we’re dealt.

“If you have a project and it doesn’t go exactly the way you want, you can take your ball and go home. But that’s not our answer. This partnership is indicative of the fact that we’re still here, we’re still advocating, we’re still existing, we’re persevering and we’re thriving.”

Growing movement

In addition to its advocacy of historical reckoning, Project Say Something works to improve access to affordable child and health care in Black, Brown and marginalized communities, and to document Black history of the Shoals, the pocket of northwestern Alabama where Florence is located. The area is the birthplace of Helen Keller and blues great W.C. Handy and has a strong musical tradition.

But it is also predominantly white and deeply conservative. The League of the South, a white nationalist, neo-Confederate hate group, is headquartered in Lauderdale County, where Florence is the county seat. The Klan also has had a sustained presence in the area and tried to establish a headquarters in Tuscumbia, in nearby Colbert County, in the early 1980s.

In its collaboration with Kinfolk, Bennett’s group is part of a growing movement of creative people around the country who use augmented reality and other forms of digital art and archival power to uncover and reclaim Black history.

Illustration of traveling while black exhibit
The Traveling While Black exhibit space replicates Ben's Chili Bowl, a Washington, D.C., restaurant that was a safe space for Black travelers in the segregation-era U.S. (Courtesy of Traveling While Black)

Since 2019, the genre-bending 3D virtual reality film project Traveling While Black has been touring the country, using high-concept documentary and virtual reality technology to immerse participants in the often terrifying experiences of Black Americans while traveling at a time when white supremacist laws and customs known as Jim Crow blanketed the American South. From November 2022 to January 2023, the exhibit was shown at the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

Since 2021, Hidden in Plain Site, a multimedia tour that uses virtual reality and augmented audiovisual technology, has been employed by activists in Richmond, Virginia, to expose the invisible history and centuries-long suffering of Black people there.

Change through technology

Kinfolk emerged both out of the same sort of obstacles encountered by Project Say Something and the nationwide movement to use technology to enhance the understanding of Black history.

Originally called Movers & Shakers NYC, Kinfolk began as a collective of artists and activists who worked on a 2017 campaign to advocate for the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle in New York City. Despite teach-ins, performance art demonstrations and pleas to city officials over Columbus’ mistreatment of the native people on Hispaniola, the 76-foot column installed at the center of the circle remains. Its proposed removal was opposed by some sectors of the city’s Italian American community and Columbus Day Parade organizers. In 2018, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Frustrated, the group committed itself to “making the changes we wanted become reality through technology,” said Idris Brewster, Kinfolk co-founder and executive director.

Before starting Kinfolk with creative partner Glenn Cantave, Brewster worked for Google on Code Next, which offered free computer science courses for Black and Brown students in public schools.

Using their technological savvy, Brewster and Cantave rolled out the downloadable Kinfolk app in 2021, with an archive of about 20 historical figures, including Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston, Bayard Rustin, Denmark Vesey and Gaspar Yanga. This year, Kinfolk received a $1.8 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand its work nationwide. Its collaboration with Project Say Something is funded in part by that grant. 

At the Juneteenth event in Florence, Kinfolk will unveil a new virtual monument, to Dred and Harriet Scott, the enslaved couple who unsuccessfully sued for freedom for themselves and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857. One of the three virtual monuments in the town builds on the work of Florence artist Lee Murkey and is a tribute to the journey of enslaved Africans to the town and their resistance on the slave ships.

“We partner with folks on the ground taking action into their own hands,” Brewster said. “What’s really inspiring about Camille Bennett and Project Say Something is the fierceness with which they work and how unapologetically radical they are in their ways of creating change.”

Just the beginning

Brewster, who studied cognitive and computer science at Occidental College, grew up with an understanding of the power of using technology to immerse viewers and spectators in experiences. His parents were documentary filmmakers, and before he was out of high school, he had starred in a PBS film of theirs, American Promise, about growing up Black.

Before creating the monuments for Project Say Something, Brewster and his team canvassed Florence seeking ideas and responses to their proposals. They held remote meetings twice a week for months with activists and artists in Florence.

On June 17, before celebrations begin to mark the 3-year-old federal holiday, officially on June 19, Brewster and his team will place images of the monuments they have created with QR codes around the plaza and elsewhere in the city. The QR codes make it possible for anyone to download the app needed to experience the monuments in virtual space. The monument viewing will be one element of a festival that will also include music, food, performances and speakers, Bennett said.

Even as they look forward to celebrating, Bennett and Brewster agree that the virtual monuments, while powerful, are just the beginning.

“These virtual monuments are artifacts of co-creating with the community,” Brewster said. “Narrative change is just one link in the entire process of changing laws. It’s our hope that these monuments can be a boost to what’s happening on the ground and a force for creating momentum. It’s a steppingstone.”

Photo at top: Camille Bennett of Project Say Something in the county courthouse plaza in Florence, Alabama, where a Confederate statue has stood since 1903. (Credit: Edward Badham)