Doctoral student uses digital, gaming platforms to share Black history

Art is all about telling stories, and Amber Coleman, a University of Arizona doctoral student studying art and visual culture education, is committed to using her time and talents to share the kinds of stories that too often don't get told.

A self-described "military brat" who grew up in a family of educators, Coleman is working on a pair of passion projects that speak to her interest in two important pieces of local Black history. One is an interactive digital experience that illustrates the history of Tucson's Dunbar School. The other is a video game exploring the history of the Buffalo Soldiers – Black soldiers who served mainly in the West after the Civil War.  Coleman is working on both projects through her role as a student developer with the university's Center for Digital Humanities, a research incubator focused on using computational technology to study the human condition.

woman in a blue and white shirt

Amber Coleman, a doctoral degree candidate studying art and visual culture education, is working on passion projects illustrating the histories of Tucson's Dunbar school and the Buffalo Soldiers.

Virtual tour will show history of Dunbar School

For more than 30 years, the Paul Lawrence Dunbar School stood as the only segregated school in Tucson. The school was desegregated in 1951 and closed in 1978. The site is now home to the Dunbar Pavilion, a cultural community center with a mission to honor the past, celebrate the present and shape the future of the Black community.

Coleman's project – developing an interactive history of the school for the Dunbar Pavilion website – will be a key part of that effort.

Coleman is working with Tehan Ketema, a graduate student studying photography, video and imaging, and Myles Gordon, an undergraduate in the School of Theatre, Film and Television, on the project. The team is scanning artifacts such as reunion booklets, photos and other items that have been donated to Dunbar by former students over the years.

The virtual tour, expected to be complete by early summer, will allow website visitors to move through the building and explore its history.

"As users move through the building, they will be able to hear interviews from alumni and former teachers to learn about what those experiences were like when Dunbar was an active school," Coleman said.

The virtual tour will also feature interviews with Dunbar Pavilion board members to give users insight about plans for the pavilion moving forward.

a laptop screen showing a hallway in a virtual tour of a school

The virtual tour of the Dunbar school will include interviews with former students and their families.

"The team has done an amazing job documenting the Dunbar story," said Bryan Carter, director of the Center for Digital Humanities. "Amber's role as a graduate student developer and assistant at the center has not only been key in completing this and other projects, but she has also taken the time to mentor some of the younger students of color in the lab."

Video game will tell story of the Buffalo Soldiers

Video games are a form of art that speak to young students in a way that many media don't, and Coleman hopes to capitalize on that by developing a game that tells K-12 students the story of the Buffalo Soldiers – Black soldiers who served mainly in the West after the Civil War.

Coleman is part of a team working on a computer game that will help students learn about the Buffalo Soldiers' influence in Arizona and throughout the West. The team includes Olivia Richardson, a graduate student studying printmaking, and undergraduate students Malaika Denis in the College of Humanities and Peter Bedrick in the College of Science. The group is partnering with the Arizona Historical Society to scan artifacts that will be put into the game's digital environment as 3D objects. Local Buffalo Soldier reenactors will provide the voices for the game.

computer rendering of army barracks

This early computer rendering from the computer game Coleman is working on shows barracks at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, where the Buffalo Soldiers spent a significant amount of time.

"The storyline is that the player is meeting with a curator from the Arizona Historical Society who has recruited them to conduct research and gather artifacts from throughout the country about the Buffalo Soldiers," Coleman said. "The students then take a (virtual) journey around the U.S. to find different photos and artifacts to create their exhibition."

Coleman and the team hope to have the game finished by the end of the semester.

All about access

Coleman, who is set to graduate this summer, researches Black feminism and Black women's experiences in art and education. Much of her work centers on finding ways to archive and preserve the stories of Black women and other marginalized communities so students and others can access and learn from those experiences. The types of technology she is using in the Dunbar and Buffalo Soldiers projects will be key to making that happen.

"I'm interested in digital archiving and using digital tools and platforms to create opportunities to engage with stories we might not always get to hear," Coleman said. "When we think about traditional archives, they're typically in physical spaces, and there can be limitations with how we can access that material."