By 1712 the African Burial Ground existed in colonial New York. It is the nation's earliest known African American cemetery. In addition to being the final resting place for approximately 10,000 people for at least four generations, it covered five acres and has been called one of the most important archaeological finds of our time.

    In 1795, the land of the Burial Ground, which had been granted to the Van Borsum family in 1673, was subdivided and sold for house lots. Thus the Burial Ground was closed and its land, which lay in a ravine, was filled-in and leveled with as much as 25 feet of earth ensuring the preservation of many graves under the cellars of later buildings.

    The heart of Frankel's proposed African Burial Ground Memorial in Lower Manhattan is a plaza roughly 100 by 150 feet on the corner of Duane and Elk Streets. The plaza is defined by a slab floating above a thin void � evoking "kalunga," the line dividing this world from the next -- slightly higher than the adjacent sidewalk. The design proposes paving the plaza and all the sidewalks and streets where the African Burial Ground once existed with shells, an element of African philosophy symbolizing the animation of succeeding generations by the spirit of the ancestors.

  • The plaza design includes twelve cylinders of varying heights, the tallest 25 feet, which together define a circular enclosure. Each cylinder is a transparent glass tube enclosing a soil boring which holds its authentic archaeological elements. At the base of the tallest borings are pieces of tools and pottery, thought to be a continuation of an African funerary custom of breaking and depositing personal possessions of the dead with the corpse (note: archaeologists in charge of the site removed, analyzed, and reinterred skeletal remains). Also there are glass beads, believed by Africans to ward off evil spirits, as well as shroud pins, indications that the ancient African custom of shrouding the dead continued in New York. At the base of the shorter borings are remnant foundations of the 19th century structures built subsequently upon the burial ground. Etched into each casing are inscriptions, some explain African cosmologies and theologies, others tell of African and slave history in New York. Below the raised borings are lights which illuminate the cylinders at night. Also there are speakers which quietly play the imagined sounds, music, and conversations of those interred.

    Rising above the plaza is a cork oak tree, a species indigenous to the Atlantic coast of Africa and planted worldwide, exploited for its thick cork bark. African and African Americans are known to plant trees directly upon graves as an expression of immortality. The tree's roots grow in the direction of the kingdom of the dead.

    Reclaiming Our Past: Honoring Our Ancestors: New York 18th Century African Burial Ground &Memorial Competition gave Rachel Frankel's design a Second Award in 1994. The project is published in Landscape Narratives: Design Practices for Telling Stories, Matthew Potteiger and Jamie Purinton, John Wiley &Sons, Inc. 1998; Duke Magazine, 1994; Reclaiming Our Past, Honoring Our Ancestors, Edward Kaufman, The African Burial Ground Competition Coalition, 1994.The project was exhibited at North Carolina Central University, 1997; Aaron Davis Hall, NYC, 1995; The Municipal Art Society, NYC, 1994; The Congressional Black Caucus, DC, 1994; Howard University, DC, 1994; and New York State Museum, Albany, 1994.