Roanoke Hidden Histories, a volunteer-led effort called the HIPS Team partnering with the Harrison Museum of African American Culture as its fiscal agent, is currently raising funds and gathering historical records to acknowledge African American history in the community’s public spaces. The project will focus on acknowledging and documenting painful and troubling aspects of our shared history as well as celebrating Black achievements in the community. A goal of the effort is to bring overlooked history to life.
The project will begin with two components: the development of a virtual education tool that emphasizes “hidden history” at five community locations and the creation of a sculpture of Henrietta Lacks at the City’s Lacks Plaza.
“The two projects go hand in hand,” says project lead
Trish White-Boyd. “We’ll create a virtual system to inventory sites and communicate history in an engaging way using technology. Then, natural next steps may use that interest and knowledge to develop physical representations on the sites, so that we can all stumble across the layers of history in our daily paths.”
The first physical project, a sculpture of Henrietta Lacks, honors the Roanoke native who unknowingly provided the world with the HeLa cell, fueling decades of lifesaving and life-changing research.
“She didn’t know it, but she has improved the lives of all of us,” says White-Boyd. City council has named the plaza for Mrs. Lacks, but right now there’s nothing to acknowledge her, no
way to tell her story.” The planned sculpture will be a bronze work to be designed by Blacksburg-based sculptor Larry Bechtel.
The Roanoke Hidden Histories project is aligned with the Harrison Museum of African American Culture. “It’s a natural fit,” says Harrison Museum Board President Charles Price. “We are committed to telling the story of the African American experience in Roanoke and celebrating Black culture, life, and achievements through history and art. We do that daily for visitors at our museum in Center in the Square, but we also want to bring that history to the community. This project will do just that.”
The virtual reality component of the project will be used as an educational tool and is being developed through a partnership with Richmond’s Hidden in Plain Sight (HiPS). HiPs representative, Dontrese Brown, was in town to tour sites and begin the documentation process.
“I want to thank the committee for believing in the HiPs team and our vision. After George Floyd was murdered, we wanted to add to the social justice narrative but we wanted to do it from a different point of view. We also understood that there was a gap in terms of the history of the voices that have been erased and the stories that we were traditionally told and we felt that if we could tell those stories then that would maybe close the gap on things. There are going to be a lot of painful stories. We’re not trying to point fingers, all we want to do is make sure there’s some acknowledgment of that past history. Understanding that collectively what can we do as a community, a unit, and as a country to solve problems so that we can move forward to a more equitable country. That’s the whole purpose of HiPs. It’s not about Roanoke, nor about Richmond. It’s about our country and we are in a position now to where we feel like we can help shape the direction of where this country is going,” Brown said.
Their tour began at 1:15 p.m. on Thursday, April 14 at the site of The Berglund Center.
Fundraising efforts are off to a successful start. The complete budget for the first phase is $160,000, of which nearly $95,000 has been raised. “We’ve had some very generous leadership gifts,” says White-Boyd. “Now we’re beginning in earnest the community phase of the campaign, and we have started receiving donations from $20 to $100. While some are greater, every dollar makes a difference.”
Donations may be made online at www.roanokehiddenhistories.org or by check made payable to “The Harrison Museum of African American Culture.” Mention “Henrietta Lacks /Hidden in Plain Sight” in the memo line and sends it to Harrison Museum of African American Culture, PO BOX 21054, Roanoke, VA 24018
Hidden in Plain Sight is a virtual reality (VR) exploration of distinct, but easy to overlook sites that tell the story of the Black experience throughout history. Featuring actual examples from various angles and ages, these sites will be brought to life through their current appearance augmented with historical imagery. The goal is to inform and educate while changing how residents and visitors see and experience their city.