Aldon Thomas Stiles | California Black Media
Every year, the Black Voice Foundation (BVF), an African American-led educational organization based in California’s Inland Empire, offers a group trip to diverse groups of area residents the South and Midwest called the Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad Field Study Tour.
During the annual excursion, which began in 1997, the BVF escorts hundreds of San Bernardino and Riverside residents along the multi-state trail that traces the path to freedom thousands of African Americans took from enslavement in the South to freedom up North above the Mason-Dixon line.
“I was honored and blessed. You have to feel what it’s like to walk the path and stand on the shoulders. And I can’t say it without tears in my eyes that I saw myself there. It takes everyone. It doesn’t take a skin color to free the enslaved,” said Jacque Irons, a teacher at Cypress Elementary School in the San Bernardino City Unified School District. She went on the BVF tour. Irons is a White woman and the mother of two African American adopted sons.
“It’s about the human spirit,” Irons continued. “It’s about the freedom seekers. It’s about the abolitionists. As I was walking, I would text my friends back home and say I see myself right there in that house, serving a meal, freeing the enslaved. I see myself right now in San Bernardino, in this district, breaking chains. The key is education.”
This year, because of the global pandemic and to coincide with Black History Month, BVF is taking its virtual tour online.
To get the job done, the organization, which provides training and education in history, the arts and professional development to journalists and others in its local community, has teamed up with ImagineAR, a Canada-based digital technology firm. The multi-year partnership will enable the creation of technology that immerses virtual tourists into BVF’s highly curated Underground Railroad excursion, bringing the group tour to the private environment of an individual’s desktop or mobile device. The resulting computer-generated user experience will be complete with virtual artifacts and other sensory cues that mimic reality.
“We teach empathy through history, specifically to educators but also to the greater community, using the story of the Underground Railroad,” said Hardy Brown II, chairman of the Black Voice Foundation.
“Because of COVID shutting us down in 2020, we started thinking about new ways to get people excited,” Brown continued. “People were getting really sick and tired of Zoom, so we wanted to offer something new.”
Alen Paul Silverrstieen, CEO of ImagineAR, expressed his excitement for this new, long-term partnership with the Black Voice Foundation and what it could mean for young history aficionados.
“It really was an honor to have the opportunity not only to speak to [Brown] and see what he does, but to really partner up and become a national sponsor — to really bring this out to the next generation,” Silverrstieen said.
Brown emphasized the relevance of this virtual tour.
“We take them and let them learn about what people went through and what they did in the past and we inspire them to realize that they too can do the same thing in the future and in the current day,” Brown said.
Brown spoke briefly about the history of the Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad Field Study Tour and how it has evolved over the years.
“For 15 years we basically did one tour a year and then over the last six or so years we started to build that up. We started adding more trips on the tour, new stops on the tour, new stories on the tour and with this new thing with augmented reality, it brings a new aspect of the tour that we haven’t thought about in the past,” Brown said.
He compared the technology to the 1977 sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster film “Star Wars” in which characters communicated via three-dimensional holograms.
The augmented reality Underground Railroad tour is currently in progress. To sign up, visit the Black Voice Foundation.