Church’s historic trove being preserved with technology

THE BETHEL AME CHURCH with its rich 180-year-old history in the lives of African Americans will be preserved using Virtual Reality technology. It will enable future researchers to not only review documents, but to experience being in the church through 3D imaging.

School of Informatics and Computing faculty at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis are using a $57,000 Indiana University grant to help save a historic trove of archival documents and objects from the Bethel AME Church, Indianapolis’ oldest African-American church.

The church, located at 414 W. Vermont St., closed its doors last year after the historic downtown building was sold.

School faculty members Andrea Copeland, Albert William, Zebulun Wood and Ayoung Yoon received a New Frontiers of Creativity and Scholarship award from the IU Office of the Vice President for Research for a unique collaboration in preservation and 3-D virtual environments.

Their project, “Virtual Bethel: Underrepresented History and Primary Source Education through Virtual Reality,” is “a wonderful demonstration of the interplay between informatics and digital archiving,” said Mathew J. Palakal, executive associate dean of the School of Informatics and Computing.

The preservation efforts of the faculty and students include producing a virtual 3-D walk-through of the church.

When complete, the 3-D model will be publicly accessible through the Indiana Historical Society. The digital images used to create it will be housed in IUPUI’s University Library. The digitized archive will reside at the Indiana Historical Society, along with the original archival records.

Founded in 1836, the Bethel AME Church played vital roles in the Underground Railroad and the founding of Indiana’s NAACP and the School for Black Children in Indianapolis.

Baptismal records, tithing records, $1.35 in change from a collection — the preserved items will tell a rich and vibrant story that includes Madam C.J. Walker and many other prominent Black Indianapolis residents who attended Bethel AME.

School of Informatics and Computing alumnus Rodney Freeman, a library administrator and founder of Project Back Up, initiated a plan to save the church’s records. Copeland, a faculty member in the school’s Department of Library and Information Science, provided additional assistance, along with Kisha Tandy and Wilma Moore of the Indiana Historical Society.

For the past three years, containers of records, memoirs and memorabilia have been painstakingly recorded and organized into 200 archival boxes by Tandy and Moore.

Students from the school’s 3D Production class photographed every square inch of the church, collecting 3,000 images for the 3-D modeling process.

The Bethel AME project aligned with a course Wood and William were teaching, enabling them to involve students in the project.

“It’s exciting to consider these projects as an outlet for student work,” Wood said. “Having a niche in virtual re-creation is a great prospect for our students.”

Wood, William and their students will go on to create a detailed virtual learning space complete with blue stained-glass windows, an authentic re-creation of the pulpit and chair from the church, and various documents. A bare-bones first version of the space has already been designed.

The Bethel AME work exposed faculty and students to an incredible historic community landmark that existed right next to the IUPUI campus. “Digital technology helps us understand history and our cultural heritage,” William said. “I have lived here for years, and now that I know, it’s amazing.”


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