Saving Bethel’s History: IUPUI Professors Digitally Preserve Historic African-American Church

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Four IUPUI professors have received a grant to save a historic collection of archival documents and photos from Indianapolis’ oldest black church.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has served the African-American community in Indianapolis for nearly 150 years. Despite its prominence in the community, a rapidly dwindling membership has forced the once thriving church to close its doors.

The costly repairs required to rebuild the aging site have forced church leaders to sell the historic property, which will now be turned into two hotels.

Through their project "Virtual Bethel: Underrepresented History and Primary Source Education through Virtual Reality," IUPUI faculty members Andrea Copeland, Albert William, Zebulun Wood and Ayoung Yoon hope to preserve the church’s rich history.

After being contacted by a former student and member of the church, Copeland became interested in creating a sustainable archive of the congregation’s notable documents. The church once had it’s own collection of archives that Copeland feels will be better preserved on a digital platform.

She believes that the archive will provide the community with accessible education about the underrepresented black history of Indianapolis.

“Groups that generally fall into the power structure tend to preserve their own history,” Copeland said. “The Indiana Historical Society wasn’t collecting black history in the 1800s. If you were an African American, you needed to do it yourself.”

For African-Americans in Indianapolis, Bethel existed as a community of racial solidarity, its focus resting on community outreach throughout the existing fight for civil rights in the U.S.

Bethel served as a sanctuary for social activism throughout the 20th century and up until its closing in 2016. The Indianapolis NAACP chapter and Indiana State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, along with numerous chapters of local organizations were founded at Bethel.

The church also aided in opening schools for African Americans in Indianapolis after the Civil War.

“They had so much to do with the history of the city,” Copeland said. “If the print archive was not preserved many people wouldn’t know that.”

Over 3,000 photos of documents and objects were taken in the church in order to create the imaging archives. The project will also include a complete virtual 3-D walk-through of the church that will be publicly accessible at IUPUI’s School of Informatics and Computing.

The virtual model, designed by Albert William, Zebulun Wood and the help of three IUPUI informatics students, will guide viewers through a nearly identical 3-D model of the church.

“Its an amazing virtual space where you can walk around and touch everything,” Copeland said, “The model will go so much further in making the story of Bethel known to people. The end goal is to get people to understand the African-American experience.”

The group also believes this project will change the future of archiving and how students interact with archived documents.

“It will be a great asset for future generations,” Yoon said. “This is a way to learn about history in a more fun and unintimidating way.”

Yoon fears that the tedious procedure that must be followed when archiving for historical research is creating a distance between students and the material. With this project, she hopes to lower the barriers of access to these sources.

“If other people embrace archives in this way, it could be a paradigm shift for the future of archiving,” Copeland said.

Yoon and Copeland hope that the digital archive will ultimately provide an accessible platform for student research.

The original and digitized documents will be available at the Indiana Historical Society and University Library, while the finished virtual model will remain at the School of Informatics and Computing.

“All of these representations are a conduit to a story and the narrative,” Copeland said. “That is what’s so special about all of it. It’s a connection to a history.”

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