Order of Multitudes

Mapping the Legacy of Slavery: In Conversation with VanJessica Gladney

VanJessica Gladney is a doctoral student in History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she also earned her B.A. As an undergraduate student, she was one of the original members of the Penn & Slavery Project’s student research team. Penn & Slavery Project (P&SP) members investigate Penn’s connections to slavery and systematic racism. Gladney’s research has focused on Penn’s eighteenth-century slaveholding trustees and faculty members, and her work has included research on slavery advocate George Whitefield, long considered a founding father of the university. In 2020, the university announced a plan to remove a statue of Whitefield, erected in the early twentieth century, from Penn’s campus. Gladney is still actively involved in P&SP as a graduate student.

In this interview, Gladney describes her research, particularly the Augmented Reality app she helped create which maps Penn’s historical entanglements with slavery over the twenty-first century university campus.

Sarah Pickman: You were one of the original members of the Penn & Slavery Project (P&SP)’s research team, which you joined as an undergraduate student in 2017. Could you speak to how the project first came about? Was there a particular incident that galvanized you and your colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania?

VanJessica Gladney: I was a student in Dr. Kathleen Brown and Dr. Walter Licht’s class, Deciphering America. This was around the time where students in other universities were advocating for building renames and statue removals. I had some mixed feelings about that type of activism. I believed then, and still believe, that buildings and statues that honor the legacy of slave-owners should be removed. But at the time, I wondered how these efforts could help dismantle systemic racism present at the school. If that served as a starting point, what steps would follow? I caught Dr. Brown after class. We had a short conversation and, going off of the university’s earlier statement denying their connections to the institution of slavery, I said, “well luckily, we don’t have to worry about that problem here.” Unbeknownst to me, Professor Brown was about to recruit students to help push back against the university’s claims. She sent out an email to the students in the class. I responded expressing interest. And the rest is history. 

Sarah Pickman: One aspect of the P&SP that you’ve been especially involved with is the creation of an Augmented Reality (AR) app, launched in February 2020, that allows users to see the ways in which slavery has been imprinted on the physical space of the university. How did the idea of using AR as part of the Project come about? Can you describe a few of the six stops in the app?

VanJessica Gladney: Before we started talking about the AR aspect of the project, I was hired as the Public History Fellow for the Penn & Slavery Project in the 2018-2019 academic year, and my main job was to put together a website. I was looking across Penn’s different webpages and stumbled across an exhibit in which Penn had mapped out important trees on campus and provided historical information about the most significant ones. I figured that if Penn could do this for trees, they could do the same for the places on campus with connections to slavery. I really started thinking about campus iconography and memorialization. It seemed that some spaces only needed a name, or a class’s graduating year, to signify its importance, whereas others, for example some of the trees, were deemed worthy of contextualizing. I noticed this even more when I saw certain buildings on campus that had a ground marker with a phone number and a code. If you dial the number, and input the code, supposedly, you could hear a narrator with information about the building, space, or statue.

At the time, I was thinking about how I could use this to publicize my own research about the buildings and statues honoring slave owners. I mentioned this to Professor Kathleen Brown, Alexis Broderick-Neumann (P&SP’s post-doc), and Arielle Brown (an artistic consultant) while we were walking to a meeting in the library. I pointed out one of the markers on the ground and started to ask, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a Penn & Slavery Project version of this. You just take out your phone and-” Before I could finish, Arielle Brown started talking about an AR project that another artist had just completed called Sweet Chariot, by Marisa Williamson. In this AR app, the user travels to specific locations throughout the city and unlocks AR experiences at each spot, revealing the hidden stories of Philadelphia’s history and helping protagonist Amelia find her way home. Even though I had never heard of it, I was excited to think about how we could do something similar. We walked into our meeting that day just as Paul Farber was finishing up a meeting. Paul Farber worked with Monument Lab, and he had experience with AR/VR projects. We started talking about our idea, and within the next few weeks, we were planning AR experiences for two of the research narratives: ‘Caesar’s Story’ and ‘Founders & Fundraising.’

Sarah Pickman: Do you think there’s something particularly unique or powerful about using familiar landscapes or built environments – such as Penn’s campus – to engage people in conversations about the ongoing legacies of slavery? It also strikes me that this tactic might be subversive in a “historic” east coast U.S. city like Philadelphia, where there are many other self-guided walking tours that celebrate the stories of famous white residents while ignoring everyone else…

VanJessica Gladney: I think using familiar landscapes and built environments to engage with history allows the “pulling back” of the veil of a simple historical narrative. Pulling back that veil reveals the hidden history, and it illuminates a space where people can step closer, maybe even step inside the space and engage with the information.

It also adds to a very simple story and complicates a narrative that is easy, convenient, and familiar. I tried to do that as a walking-tour guide in the historic district of Philadelphia. When I stayed with my company longer, I got a little more comfortable and my guests heard some “off script” commentary. I told people about the ways George Washington used a loophole in the Gradual Abolition Act to avoid freeing the people he enslaved in the president’s house in Philadelphia. When I pointed to the house where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, I included Sally Hemmings’s story in the narrative. When I took students to the Independence Hall, where the Constitution was signed, I told them about the 3/5ths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Clause. The responses varied from tour to tour, but when I began complicating the narratives, I received more interesting questions, and engaged in far more generative conversation. Did that history make people uncomfortable? Maybe, but I put a lot of energy into helping visitors lean into that discomfort. And it was my favorite part of being a tour guide.

But not every visitor will have a tour guide like me. So, if we can ensure that that “pull back” happens in every tour, if we can make the exhibits all-encompassing and interactive, if we can build that into the experience, that’s how we encourage maximum engagement.

Sarah Pickman: You’ve written elsewhere that AR will undoubtedly become a larger part of higher education going forward – as a pedagogical tool and opportunity for collaborative work. What are some things you think educators and researchers must keep in mind about how to use AR to teach, especially for thinking about the history of places and space? Are there specific challenges to creating and using AR tools scholars must recognize?

VanJessica Gladney: When building apps and exhibits like this, educators and researchers need to keep “accessibility” in mind. Sometimes I hear people use the phrase “make history accessible” when they really mean “make history interesting.” But to truly make AR experiences accessible, creators need to think about eliminating as many obstacles as they can. All audio should be captioned. All text should be narrated. And no matter how innate or intuitive someone thinks AR is, it is a real possibility that they’re making this for someone who has never used it.

Also, AR is best when used meaningfully. Each stop on our tour has a different type of AR exhibit, and the way the users interact with it relates specifically to the narrative we tried to communicate in the stop. The tour begins with the ‘Caesar’s Story’ stop. Caesar was enslaved by Penn’s first English professor, Ebenezer Kinnersley, who received payment for Caesar’s labor. We imagined a portrait of Ebenezer and the Kinnersleys that comes to life on the base of Benjamin Franklin’s statue. Its placement represents the ways that Penn’s founders and funders relied on the institution of slavery. The Slavery’s Science stop makes the history of Penn’s Samuel Morton Skull Collection available to the public. Recent research on this led the Penn Museum to relocate the Morton Skull Collection. The AR exhibit surrounds the user in a dome featuring interactive artifacts, images, and terminology that reveal the connections between Penn medical school professors and scientific racism. The dome illustrates that this history—slavery’s history—is everywhere. The AR tour ends with the Generations stop; it features Penn History PhD student Breanna Moore’s discovery that her ancestors were enslaved by a Penn alum. The exhibit places her family’s quilt in front of a bridge with stones displaying the names of donors, alums, and others who have contributed to Penn’s wealth. The stop serves as a digital interruption of campus, and it inserts a story that has been erased, or left out of Penn’s history. It also illustrates the discrepancies between the wealth, education, and resources of the families of white enslavers and the families of the enslaved. The institutions that benefited from slavery have erased the long-lasting and all-encompassing impacts of the institution far too easily.

I think there are elements of “fun” to AR/VR. And there are settings where adding “game” elements to it are appropriate. But AR shouldn’t be limited to entertainment. It can be an educational tool, and that means making deliberate choices and considering the consequences of the design and nature of user interaction.

Sarah Pickman: Can you tell us about your current doctoral research? Do you have any projects in the works that you’re especially excited about?

VanJessica Gladney: Right now, I am working on a project that is tangentially related to my doctoral research which focuses on enslaved women seeking freedom in the 19th Century. My research will add historical context to a VR Afro-futuristic Underground Railroad experience. We’re in the early stages of development and I’m excited to see where this goes!