Eastern Oregon University > Events > Understanding the Civil Rights Movement through virtual reality

Understanding the Civil Rights Movement through virtual reality

Understanding the Civil Rights Movement through virtual reality

Feb. 15, 2022 LA GRANDE, Ore. – Eastern Oregon University is giving students and faculty the opportunity to virtually step through time to 1968 and witness events of the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month.  

The EOU Library, in collaboration with history faculty and the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion, is providing two educational virtual reality programs this February: “I Am A Man” and “Driving While Black.”

“The ‘I Am A Man’ virtual reality experience is an immersive documentary that focuses on archival primary sources. It has recordings from the time period, both video and audio. It has archival images from newspapers, photographs, pamphlets and materials that have been collected around the time,” said associate professor of library Sarah Ralston.  

Talks between the library and history department began in the fall with planning and set up beginning in January. The VR rigs were originally planned for set up in the library, but moved to the Multicultural Center to increase student accessibility and to prevent large queues. 

“We talked about setting it up in the library, but we don’t get quite the same amount of foot traffic as Hoke gets, so it was a good idea to have it hosted over there by the Multicultural Center so people can just drop by and try it out,” Ralston said. 

“I Am A Man,” created by Derek Ham, puts users on the ground during the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike and cycles through various computer-generated scenes and locations, culminating in the assassination of Martin Luther King. The experience lasts 10 minutes and uses a mix of animation and archived images with some interactivity.  

“Basically, the experience takes you through a few scenes. In the opening scene, there’s a garbage truck and garbage can and you’re able to pick up the can and dump it into the truck. It’s meant to set the stage to where you’re participating in events leading up to the sanitation workers’ strike. There’s a scene where there are actual strikers marching down the streets with signs and there are tanks going up and down the street,” Ralston said. 

“Driving While Black,” a virtual reality experience created by Felix & Paul Studios, is also available on-campus this month. It includes more real-world imagery and functions similarly to an oral history, as the user is being told personal stories while sitting in a restaurant booth. 

“It provided a completely different kind of experience. Have the set on and look to your left and you see an actual person rather than a computer-generated person. To me, ‘Driving While Black’ left more of an impression just because it felt like I was really sitting next to someone in a coffee shop,” said Interim Director of Student Diversity and Inclusion Mika Morton.  

Both experiences are part of a greater Black History Month project to provide students context to Civil Rights Movement events, along with the greater cultural, social and historical impact of the era.  

“Part of advancing and promoting equity and inclusion and moving the DEI needle is being able to experience and really listen and try to understand other perspectives. If you don’t understand what others are experiencing, that  could lead to dismissing somebody else’s experience as less than yours,” Morton said. 

The VR set-ups are meant to act as a jumping off point for greater student curiosity. Morton hopes that the greater ease of access and the unique in-person experiences will generate more student interest in the history of civil rights and racial inequality. 

“I hope that students will take it as a learning opportunity and really consider what they hear and what they see in either one of the apps, and that it will be thought-provoking for them. Whether or not they are able to emphasize and put themselves in somebody else’s shoes, it can’t not make them think twice about looking at history in this particular way,” Ralston said. 

“I Am A Man” is available in the Multicultural Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or in the library with an online scheduled appointment made at guides.library.eou.edu/vr. “Driving While Black” is also available by appointment in the library.

The experiences will run until the end of February. Two Oculus VR headsets are available, one for each program. A separate screen is available in the Multicultural Center to view the programs while they are being experienced by other students. Assistant Professor of History Mike Mortimer will give a presentation covering material shown in the programs at 4 p.m., on Feb. 24 in the library reading room.

The virtual reality technology is part of the EOU Library mobile Virtual Reality Lab, a project that was made possible in part by an American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the State Library of Oregon. 

Find more information about “I Am A Man” at iamamanvr.logicgrip.com and learn more about “Driving While Black” at oculus.com/experiences/go/1994117610669719.