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Student-driven Monument Avenue tour app tells Richmond's story - 'the good, the bad and the ugly'
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Student-driven Monument Avenue tour app tells Richmond's story - 'the good, the bad and the ugly'

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As 17-year-old LaMarion Eubanks, an 11th-grader at John Marshall High School, imagines it, Richmond-born tennis great Arthur Ashe wouldn’t be the only symbol of Black excellence, strength and durability along Monument Avenue, shorn last week of its last Confederate icon.

Eubanks said he could picture rising on the gracious avenue’s grassy median strip a likeness of Black Panther, the comic book and film superhero who — equipped with a protective suit fashioned from a rare metal — rallies the people of his advanced, mysterious African nation against invasion.

From the musings of Eubanks and other city high school students who had taken a class on Richmond history has sprung — two years in the making — an app through which people can take a digital tour of the city that focuses on Monument Avenue and the Black perspective on it.

Richmond Public Schools announced the app on Sunday during a ceremony on the steps of the columned facade of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, among the nearly dozen historical, cultural, educational and technical organizations that collaborated on the project, called “Monumental Conversations.”

Eubanks said that in his city history class, students — there were about 24 — were encouraged to reimagine the Confederate monuments — the sixth and final, a towering statue of Robert E. Lee, was removed by the state last Wednesday — and to consider ways of “making the street our own.”

The app, soon to be available through Apple and Android’s stores, will tell “the full story of Richmond — the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Superintendent Jason Kamras.

The local project has an international component.

It was through a U.S. State Department program that promotes person-to-person ties between this country and foreign states that the two people who led the project — a Virginian who visited Mauritius, in East Africa, and a Washington State resident who twice traveled to China — would be brought together.

At a reunion of participants in 2019, Grady Hart, RPS coordinator of community partnerships, met Julia Beabout, head of a digital art production company in Seattle.

Hart aspired to a fuller telling of Richmond’s history, one that drew on the work of students and others in the community. Beabout could deliver the technology that made it possible.

Seed money — $10,000 — was provided by the State Department, said Nini Forino, an acting deputy assistant secretary. As Beabout put it, the enterprise — complicated by the communications complexities of the coronavirus pandemic — became a “labor of love for everybody.”

The app — it provides a tour via augmented reality — draws on the students’ work, vetted by experts, and includes narration by familiar voices: Rodney Robinson, RPS teacher-retention adviser and 2019 National Teacher of the Year; and Viola Baskerville, a former City Council member, legislator and Cabinet secretary.

The app isn’t without its competitors, specifically those offered by tourism and historical groups. But it is distinct in that it requires the user’s participation, Hart said.

Or as council member Katherine Jordan, in whose district the Rebel monuments stood, put it, “Contextual history is not boring.”

jschapiro@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6814

Twitter: @RTDSchapiro

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