Photo courtesy of: Andrea Frohne
Wooden coffins hand built in Ghana with adinkra symbols carved into them are unloaded for the 2003 reburial of 419 excavated burials.
Photo courtesy of: Andrea Frohne
A federal office building at 290 Broadway next to City Hall Park was constructed on top of the African Burial Ground from 1991-1993. The exterior memorial located behind the office building (pictured here) opened in 2007.
Photo courtesy of: Andrea Frohne
Mar 4, 2011
By Katelyn Sierzputowski
Andrea Frohne, assistant professor of African art history, has spent nearly 11 years researching a controversial find just steps away from where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
The 200-year old African Burial Ground, rediscovered in 1991, is as mysterious to those stateside as the diverse traditions that flourish in both Africa and Frohne’s lectures.
Although Frohne is now actively involved with and deeply committed to the African arts, this subject was not always her passion. Her undergraduate years were spent studying English literature.
African art was a topic that first piqued her interest as a master’s student. The politics surrounding the artwork and a few excursions to Africa helped to cement her new area of focus.
“The most striking thing was the aspect of spirituality [in Africa] and how it is apart of everyday life,” said Frohne.
Spirituality is just one of the heady subjects that Frohne covers in her manuscript: “Space, Spirituality and Memory: The African Burial Ground in New York City.”
A rediscovered space
In her research, Frohne has worked to uncover the secrets of this sacred site, located below the feet of Wall Street’s business executives.
She wants to see it be reclaimed for the African American community, so it can generate feelings of honor for those ancestors and be properly commemorated by the artwork that was produced to celebrate its memory.
“This is the largest and earliest cemetery in North America of Africans and people of African descent. The cemetery offers direct connections between Africans and some of the first African Americans who were born here,” said Frohne. “This is a link that is so important; it makes connections which have been denied as a result of the slave trade.”
The burial ground is located 25 feet below the bustling streets of lower Manhattan, invisible to those unaware of its presence.
Although artwork has been produced, its presence is still masked by the large skyscraper that lead to the burial ground’s discovery.
“The actual address is 290 Broadway…but what you see is the office building,” said Frohne. “You can see some of the artwork that’s onsite, however it is inside the building. To see the outside artwork you have to walk off of Broadway and around the side street.”
Frohne was surprised when she first heard of the burial ground, which had been unmarked and rarely found on maps for hundreds of years.
“When I left to do my Ph.D., I went to New York City and to the Guggenheim [Museum],” she recalled. “I picked up a brochure, and in the brochure, there was information about different arts in the city. It had this photograph of a skeleton excavated from the African Burial Ground, and I was like, ‘What is that?’”
An embodiment of controversy
Still today, few have learned of the discovery, and even fewer have had the chance to bear witness to its preservation. But Frohne is attempting to transform the ignorance surrounding the burial ground by providing context to the unearthed bodies that influenced a wave of civil unrest.
The African Burial Ground was initially hidden by the General Services Administration (GSA), the government administration that built on the site.
Activism early in the discovery eventually led to a memorial for the forgotten site. The passion seen in these activists was another aspect that piqued Frohne’s interest when she began research on the history and controversy that surrounded the burial ground.
“Through politics, through the negative impact of politics, and also the positive impact of politics that was spearheaded by activism, a sacred site could become treated in more respectful ways than what was proposed for it,” she said.
Frohne’s book covers a variety of topics relating to the African Burial Ground, but above all, she hopes readers gain an enhanced knowledge of space and its social construction.
“I want readers to think critically about space and how space can be impacted, how we remember space, how we engage with space, choose not to engage with space, and how we honor or desecrate it,” she explained.
Funding and further plans
The burial ground’s secrecy may be tied to the fact that little writing has been done on the controversial topic. Aside from scientific analysis, no one has delved into the spirituality, politics and artwork that Frohne uncovers in her manuscript, which will be submitted for publication.
Due to Frohne’s tenacious interest in the African Burial Ground, she was granted in 2006 a Gilder Lehrman Institute Fellowship, awarded to ten candidates yearly. The fellowship provides short-term research fellowships to doctoral candidates and senior faculty who are researching American history.
Through this fellowship Frohne was given access to the New York Historical Society, where she had the privilege of looking at the few original maps that documented the burial ground’s existence.
Following the publication of her book, Frohne hopes to focus her next research endeavor on Ethiopia.
In 1990, the General Services Administration (GSA) paid $104 million for two properties in lower Manhattan with the intention of developing a 34-story high rise containing a variety of government offices. The superstructure can now be seen camouflaged among the other buildings of the New York skyline; however its erection was not attributed to the common skyscraper.
Before any federal funds could be spent on the project, the Historic Conservation and Interpretation (HCI) was hired to create an environmental impact statement. To the surprise of the GSA, the report identified the target construction area as the site of a 200-year-old African Burial Ground, although all remains were expected to be obliterated due to centuries of construction on the site.
To GSA’s surprise, remains were found during the first stages of development. The mistreatment of the burial ground outraged the surrounding black community, and due to lobbying, $3 million was received from Congress to properly commemorate the ancient find.