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Unique VR experience explores the life of Eartha M. M. White

If there ever was a woman of the 19th century who helped shape the trajectory of Jacksonville’s humanitarian, civic and philanthropic endeavors, look no further than to Eartha Mary Magdalene White.
Eartha M. M. White photoThe daughter of a former slave, White was born in Jacksonville on Nov. 8, 1876 and was later adopted by Lafayette and Clara English White.
She graduated from Stanton School – now known as Stanton College Preparatory – in 1893 and moved to New York City to avoid the yellow fever epidemic. There, she attended Madam Hall Beauty School and the National Conservatory of Music.
In addition to her philanthropy, White was a successful businesswoman – unusual for an African American of that period, let alone a female. She championed for civil rights, the underserved and Jacksonville’s most vulnerable citizens.
She received many accolades over her lifetime, including the Booker T. Washington Symbol of Service Award, honorary doctorate degrees, the Jacksonville Jaycees Good Citizenship Award and was even honored at a reception at the White House with President Richard Nixon.
However, her greatest joy came from helping others. Known as the “Angel of Mercy,” she fed the hungry and poor from a soup kitchen based in her two-room house on Clay Street in Jacksonville. In 1929, shortly before the Great Depression, she opened the doors to the Clara White Mission, named in honor of her adoptive mother, to serve all people regardless of race, color or creed. The Clara White Mission continues White’s mission today.
Intrigued and want to know – and experience – more? You’re in luck.
In January, the University of North Florida’s Thomas G. Carpenter Library received the 2023 Innovation Project Award from the Northeast Florida Library Network (NEFLIN) and embarked on a 9-month journey, developing a virtual reality learning experience of the life and times of Eartha M.M. White.
Using items from a collection given to UNF in 1975 by Dr. Dan Schafer, now professor emeritus of history, the expansive collection of photographs, documents, letters and other artifacts, is the library’s oldest permanent collection, said Susan Swiatosz, head of special collections and university archives.
“This project was a great way for us to showcase the remarkable legacy of this prominent Jacksonville native who contributed so much to our society and who was so respected,” Swiatosz said.
With the help of Beryl White-Bing, virtual learning librarian and Dr. Kevin Pfeil, assistant professor in the school of computing, the three started gathering research, writing the script and storyboards, scanning photographs, finding a narrator and developing the digital component to create the virtual reality learning experience.
Bedroom depiction from the Earth M. M. White virtual learning experienceSome highlights of the VR learning experience include a depiction of White’s bedroom, with her Bible on display along with the many hats she wore to church and social occasions. Another, is her parlor where her recognitions and honorary degrees are displayed on the walls.
“We each had a part in putting this project together and we’re so incredibly proud of how it turned out,” said White-Bing. “We accepted the challenge and ran with it.”
And now, with one virtual reality experience under their belt, the trio plans to present the option of creating more VR experiences to other departments as well.
“This is just the beginning,” said White-Bing. “We hope to create more VR learning experiences for archeology studies, digital humanities and environmental studies, where they’re studying the marsh and reseeding oyster beds.”
“In addition, this experience has given us the vision to put in a request to develop a permanent course on virtual reality development for students,” Pfeil said. “The possibilities are endless.”
While the VR experience is open to all students, staff and faculty in the Virtual Learning Department of the Carpenter Library, anyone in the world can take the VR experience with Meta Quest, or by viewing a 360 video version on YouTube
The Eartha M.M. White project was directed and produced by virtual learning librarian Beryl White-Bing, associate producers included Adonnica Toler, Lydia Stewart and Meg Fisher. All narrative scripts were written by Susan Swiatosz, head of special collections and university archives. Other UNF faculty and staff involved in the project's creation include Dr. Kevin Pfeil, who handled production design, Jennifer Bibb, director of photography, Trina McCowan, narrator and students Steven Drummond and Christopher Clark. The VR experience was also made possible by a 2023 Innovation Project Award from Northeast Florida Information Network (NEFLIN).