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“Echoes of the Underground” is a media installation that juxtaposes the Underground Railroad to slavery in the present. The installation consists of a VR experience (Vive) in which users step into the shoes of a slave in the mid-1800s, and a multimedia exhibit that captures diverse forms of modern slavery, ranging from bonded labor to sex trafficking, that plagues today’s world. The installation begs the question: how much progress has really been made?

“The Underground Railroad was a mass movement of civil disobedience. It was the first mass movement in American history when huge numbers of American people made sacrifices for other people’s human rights…that never happened before.” Fergus Bordewich, author & journalist

“By 1860, the dollar value of America’s slaves (approximately 4 million) was greater than the dollar value of all of America’s banks, all of America’s railroads, all of America’s manufacturing combined.” ~ Professor James Horton, George Washington University

“Originally Quakers from England, the Powells settled in New Amsterdam in 1652. The New World allowed Friends to follow their beliefs without fear of persecution. Almost 200 years later, my 5th great grandfather, Isaac T. Hopper devised escape routes for slaves and is known as the father of the Underground Railroad. Hopper, his children and many Quakers were staunch abolitionists, providing safe-houses and sustenance for slaves making the run to freedom. Friend Hopper saved the lives of over 1,000 slaves.”

“Your hat, sir !”

“What’s the matter with my hat ?” Isaac T. Hopper inquired.

“Take it off?” rejoined the officer. “You are in his Majesty Court of Chancery.”

“That is an honor I reserve for his Majesty’s Master,” he replied. “Perhaps it is my shoes thou meanest?”

“The Quaker values of simplicity, equality and peace are ingrained.”
~ J Dakota Powell



The VR component of “Echoes of the Underground” is comprised of 12 scenes (CG) as inspired by the narrative flow (beat-to-beat) in the above diagram. While the style of the scenes is surreal, historical artifacts and images pepper scenes to lend authenticity. The user engages with the content in the first person, assuming the role of the protagonist.

The goal is to encourage the user/viewer to feel empathy for the slave’s predicament. How does it feel to:

  • be shackled and then imprisoned in a slave ship?
  • be scrutinized by slave holders and then auctioned off?
  • work from sunrise to sunset only to see everything you earn go into someone else’s pocket?
  • make a bid for freedom, hiding during the day in a swamp and running at night?


“Echoes of the Underground” is theatre. The scene creation in VR will resemble the type of staging done for abstract plays. The use of masks, distorted objects and environments, sounds and spectacle (special effects) will heighten the experience and, at the same time, maintain a level of safety for the user. In addition, the “rumble” functionality in Vive controllers can provide tactile feedback for users during the journey.

Some scenes dive into the internal experience – dreams, fantasies, nightmares – to enrich and inform the experience. The ferocious dogs used by slave catchers struck terror in runaway slaves. To be caught and mutilated was a fear like no other. While a VR scene will portray this nightmare, it must be framed in a way that avoids traumatizing the user.

Although the slave’s escape to freedom follows a historical timeline and associated references, the surreal scenes in VR should represent the universal journey of any slave at any point in time.


In the slave auction scene, the user is encircled by white masks muttering in gibberish. When slaves stepped off the ship in the New World, they didn’t understand English. They had been captured by people who looked different, behaved weirdly and spoke in a foreign tongue. To dramatize the experience in VR, the viewer sees strange beings eyeing and addressing them as if commodities. If you’re an X-Files fan, it’s akin to an alien abduction.

Certain scenes will be structured as games. For example, in the plantation scene, users will pick wads of cotton off of stalks. For each wad placed in a basket, the user sees a tally for the amount of money earned from the sale of that cotton…that is, if he/she were free. As a slave, this dollar amount is the wage that has been stolen from you.