Claiming our history: Photographic exhibit tells the story of thousands of invisible black Brazilians who helped construct the nation’s capital city of Brasília DF

Note from BBT: I’ve always been fascinated by Brazil’s capital city and Federal District, Brasília DF. I’ve never been there but I’ve come across many stories about the city’s history and its construction. The history and images of the Federal District offer much tom study, from its modern construction, to its design and the transition into becoming the official headquarters of Brazil’s Federal government. Brasília is Brazil’s third capital city after Salvador, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro, which was the capital of the country from 1763 to 1960, when Brasília was officially inaugurated.

Obviously, coming from the US and knowing a little about the history of Washington DC, it’s almost natural that I would see some similarities with Brasília DF. Of course, the history of Washington is much longer than that of Brasília, but they are the seats of the federal government of both countries, and like Washington, Brasília is also a distinct administrative division of a legal municipality. Also, like Washington, it is intriguing to look at the hidden symbolism within the Plano Planalto section of the city’s blueprint when looking down on the area from a few hundred feet in the air.

In 2019, I came across some news that was of particular interest to me as it had to do with the role that black Brazilians played in the construction of the region. One of the articles that caught my immediate attention was one that stated Brasília is basically a city constructed by black people for white people. As Brazil is a country that is based on the labor of enslaved Africans, one could argue that this title applies to the entire country except that Brasília was constructed about 70 years after the official abolition of slavery in 1888.

Numerous black Brazilian students, professors and professionals participated in the research of the project

Like the contribution of black Brazilians to so many other areas of Brazilian society, their role in the construction of the nation’s new capital has been hidden from the country’s history for about 60 years, and, as I have argued before, such stories will remain hidden until Afro-Brazilians gain positions of influence where they can begin to tell their own stories, which is slowly beginning to happen. In the piece below, one historian explains how researchers were able to draw parallels between the situation of the construction of the Brazilian capital and Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa during the era of apartheid.

How so? I will explore this further in a second post about this history, but the piece below begins to set the stage for understanding what really happened at the end of the 1950s and the inauguration of the capital city of Brasília DF in 1960 and why the important work of black Brazilians seems to have been convieniently ignored in one of Brazil’s most important architectural accomplishments.  

Thousands of unidentified black workers contributed to the construction of the Brazilian capital over 60 years ago

Recovering the black presence in the formation of Brasília mobilizes scholars and society

By Nelson Oliveira with additional info courtesy of SECEC

The memory of the Federal District suffered another blow on September 30, 2020, with the demolition of the property known as Casa da Dona Negrinha, an old building located in the Historic Center of Planaltina, a city 161 years old and 38 kilometers away from the capital of the Republic. For Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto, a history professor at the University of Brasília (UnB), the loss of this heritage reveals “a lack of commitment to the right to the memory and to the history of black people in the Federal District” – a failure that, according to her, must be fought against.

The scholar, who has a doctorate and post-doctorate in history from the University of Campinas (Unicamp), has been working in recent years precisely on redeeming projects that show the importance of black people in the trajectory of Brasília, including the period that preceded the foundation of the city in 1960. The Casa da Dona Negrinha was approximately 8 kilometers from the Pedra Fundamental (Foundation Stone) of Brasília, an obelisk erected in 1922 on the occasion of the centennial of Independence.

Casa da Dona Negrinha, before the demolition, and the rubble that remained in the Historic Center of Planaltina (photos: Reproduction/Facebook)

In 2019, Ana Flávia coordinated the project “Reintegração de Posse: Narratives of the Black Presence in the History of the Federal District” (see note one), the starting point of a broader research effort in which the social experiences lived in this territory are analyzed in dialogue with historical studies of post-Abolition, freedom, and citizenship of African descendants in Brazil. The aim of the historical-photographic exhibition is to highlight the importance of black people as historical subjects who left their marks on the Federal District.

A group of black people of both sexes – among students and research professionals or professionals working in the fields of history, literature, architecture and urbanism, communication and cultural production from the University of Brasília (UnB) – carried out the search for images and other records. One of the photos in the exhibition mounted in the lobby of the university restaurant at UnB illustrates the question of the erasure of memory precisely because it relates to an exception: it presents the black quilombola Sinfrônio Lisboa da Costa (1925-2015), who participated in the construction of Catetinho, the first residence of President Juscelino Kubitschek in the Central Plateau.

The peculiar thing about him is that he received some recognition and honors for his role in his lifetime. Most of the blacks who came to participate in the construction of Brasília met a fate of anonymity, settling in neighborhoods far from the Plano Piloto designed by Lúcio Costa and even being forced to return to their states of origin. The historic photos and information from “Reintegração de Posse” were also exhibited at the National Museum of the Republic and at the Legislative Chamber of the Federal District.

Images of workers during the construction of Brasília DF

The photographic records selected for the exhibition dates from 1956 to 1998 and draw attention to the place of the black population as the majority of DF’s inhabitants. “The population of DF is formed by 57% black people and it’s necessary to reflect about the experiences of these people throughout time”, explained the historian, who is based on IBGE data updated by the Federal District Planning Company (Codeplan-DF).

Sinfrônio Lisboa in a photo from the time of the construction of Brasília (seated, right) and in 2012, when he was honored by the Federal District government (photos: Public Archive-DF and Palmares Foundation)

Also according to Pinto, the action starts from the perspective of the concept of “public history”, which is thought about the multiplicity of subjects involved and legitimated to contribute to the construction of historiographic records. “We work with the key of historical studies of freedom and post-abolition, especially with regard to the interest for reflection on the individual and collective trajectories of black people and the confrontation of racism.”

The historical-photographic exhibition wants to show the presence of black people in Brasília beyond the figure of the “candango”, the usual character of the construction sites and narratives about the capital. To do so, it presents these and other people from Brasília in different social spaces, giving life, color and movement to the city. “Our proposal is to talk about the black history in the Federal District and deal with the various aspects of the very sociability of this territory”, revealed the historian.

Unidentified worker that participated in construction of capital city

The research problematizes the term “candango”, an expression from the Bantu language, originally from sub-Saharan Africa, used by the enslaved people to characterize the Portuguese colonizers in a derogatory way before it stabilized in its current sense. Ana Flávia points out that, in part, the term “erases the historicity of the black presence in the construction of Brasília”, which the exhibition exposes and criticizes.

Historian Guilherme Lemos, who is part of the team, highlights important findings of iconographic research in the Public Archive. He cites records of the “Operation Return”, in April 1964, during the military dictatorship, in which workers who became idle after the end of the capital’s construction were forced into buses and sent back to their places of origin, or were left on the way, which to some extent generated cities like Taguatinga and Ceilândia.

“In the exhibition we draw parallels between this and what happened in South Africa, under apartheid, around the same time, in Johannesburg and Cape Town,” explains Lemos.

The professor also points out the militant action of journalist and writer Júlio Romão da Silva, from the state of Piauí, in the black movement in the Federal District. “He was the president of the Brazilian Association of Municipalities and was articulated with leaders such as Abdias do Nascimento and Solano Trindade.

The exhibition includes workshops and a virtual tour through the memory spaces of black history in the Federal District and also a tour guided by monitors to the exhibition as part of the UnB’s University Extension Week. “We will present to the community how the documents were selected for the exhibition, what techniques were used and how this was articulated with the intersubjective historical knowledge of the city through interviews with black people who have lived in Brasília since its construction”, explained Lemos.

Brazil’s capital, Brasília DF

Visitors will be invited to experience interactive environments, finding the paths taken by their relatives to Brasília and then the comings and goings through the 31 administrative regions of the Federal District. “There were people who found their relatives again through contact with this research,” says Ana Flávia.

The exhibition public will also be encouraged to collaborate with what is in the images, in written records, and in the accounts of people in different contexts. “This is an invitation to dialogue with the stories that they themselves bring with them when they leave their homes,” Pinto summarizes.

Pinto goes further into her findings and goals of the reseach in the interview below.

Interview: Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto, professor of history at UnB

The erasing of history perpetuates segregation

Researcher Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto at the Central Science Institute (ICC), University of Brasília (Photo: Arquivo Pessoal)

What were the main findings of the research that culminated with the exhibition “Reintegração de Posse: Narratives of the Black Presence in the History of the Federal District”? What formulations can be made from the material found? Did the construction stage of Brasília offer blacks any opportunity for reparation from a history of segregation?

The Federal District can be seen as a synthesis territory of the post-abolition period, and not only for the fact that today its population is mostly black – 57%, according to data from Codeplan [Federal District Planning Company] for 2015. Starting in the 1950s, there was an intense migratory flow of people, mostly black, who came here in the hope of seeing their dreams come true, dreams that were difficult or forbidden in their places of origin, and this included people from the countryside and from the cities. When Brasília was inaugurated in 1960, more than seventy years after the abolition, black men and women continued to invest in possibilities to overcome the perverse association with slavery and the place of the enslaved – an association that represents a way to naturalize and, at the same time, deny racism. Thus, the image of the “capital of hope” ended up mobilizing hearts and minds that bound themselves to the promises of modernity and development. It turned out that this did not match the aspirations of the national elites.

Already in 1964, when the main monuments were built, besides the investment in the formation of the so-called satellite cities (such as Taguatinga, Gama, Planaltina and later Ceilândia), the government of Brasília promoted “Operation Return”, in order to expel an inconvenient mass of workers who would no longer be useful. The popular struggles for housing in the Federal District speak volumes about the history of Brazilian society, which did not provide space and democratic participation for all. Expressive traces of this dynamic were found in the collection of the Public Archive of the Federal District, which has images and texts that help us put together a puzzle and reflect beyond the terms of a merely local history.

The construction of the capital attracted large numbers of people, who were then pushed to the outskirts or back to their states (photo: Public Archive – DF)

What is your assessment of the situation of the black population in the Federal District in socioeconomic terms? And to what extent does the picture connect to what the research showed?

There is a clear difference expressed in the race and income profile of the administrative regions of the Federal District. While in the poorest ones the black presence reaches up to 70% of the inhabitants, in the richest ones this participation is around 25%, tending to be lower. It happens that we often can’t articulate this data to talk about life in the Federal District because it doesn’t fit into the images we have learned to mobilize to say what Brasília is, generally understood as the Plano Piloto. In this game of scales, in which the part takes the place of the whole, even Brasília is reduced to moments like the Praça dos Três Poderes, which are sometimes registered without the presence of people, sometimes performed by subjects of the hegemonic politics, mostly white men and linked to the elites. Moreover, the key of anonymity, as materialized in the sculpture “Os Candangos” or “Os Guerreiros”, by Bruno Giorgi, ends up contributing to the naturalization of the erasure of the workers’ histories before and after 1960. This compromises our ability to recognize poor black and white people as historical subjects. The project sought, then, to reposition images that go against all this. Together with short texts and direct and indirect dialogues with the approximately 20,000 visitors, we sought to highlight this broad participation, which implies talking about what happened in the many administrative regions, not only during the construction period, but especially in the decades that followed.

In a large construction site occupied predominantly by men, black women also took on the challenge of building a city in three and a half years

If socioeconomic issues alone define certain conditions for being in a certain territory, in the case of the Federal District there are others, which present themselves in a subjective way, also capable of revealing the position to which a social group is relegated. How much space do black people have to enjoy the territory of the Federal District? To what extent does the segregation originating in the slavery process persist, in a more or less explicit way? In more concrete terms, how easy is it for blacks to move around without being constrained in places such as residential and public buildings, in other words, in doorways, elevators, shops, squares and in general in the Plano Piloto and in the satellite cities?

Brasília is the capital of a country whose elites, at the moment of its national independence, in 1822, opted for the maintenance of slavery and for differentiation among its inhabitants. The limits placed on the full citizenship of freedmen, as registered in the 1824 Constitution, are indications that racial stratification reached the world of freedom and citizenship. In this society, which for a long time made use of “color prejudice” or racism to exclude, but at the same time tried to deny that it was doing so, the racial segregation verified in the Federal District makes perfect sense and is an objective fact. Racism in the Federal District can be verified by means of statistical series from official agencies. Of course, everything that is registered in numbers can also be analyzed from subjective perspectives. But, effectively, as the geographer Milton Santos said, everyone knows that black people are discriminated against in Brazil. What is needed is that the existing strategies be strengthened and that others be built to combat this culture of exclusion. Really because Brazil is currently a country with a black majority only because the descendents of Africans have established ways to survive the complex and daily racial violence, going beyond the embarrassment at entrances, stores, and other public spaces.

The workforce that built Brasilia was made up mostly of black men (photo: Public Archive – DF)

Because it houses the country’s capital and sets up an environment of attention to what is legal and institutional, does the Federal District present itself as a place where citizenship for blacks offers greater security than in other locations in Brazil?

The institutionality that seems to characterize the Federal District is no guarantee of protection against racism. The official mechanisms for the defense of citizenship for black people in the Federal District are themselves the result of the struggles of activists from the black movement who, from the time of its inauguration, were already present. This pioneering black presence, by the way, was fundamental for the emergence of the first black entities, such as the Center for Afro-Brazilian Studies (CEAB), the Unified Black Movement (MNU), the National Afro-Brazilian Institute (Inabra). Not to mention black culture associations such as Associação Recreativa Cultural Unidos do Cruzeiro (Aruc) and the Centro de Tradições Populares associated to the Bumba Meu Boi do Seu Teodoro, among many others.

What can the academia, society and the public power do to restructure the cities and improve the cultural framework in favor of a democratic society in ethnic and racial matters?

At the end of September, Dona Negrinha’s house, which was located at Rua Treze de Maio in the so-called Traditional Sector of Planaltina, was demolished, with no interest from sectors of the public power and private initiative in ensuring the recognition of that construction as a material heritage. The lack of commitment to the right to memory and to the history of black people in the Federal District is something that needs to be fought seriously. This certainly depends on the establishment of another relationship and even the writing of another history of the Federal District, in which the lives of all social groups matter. Besides maintaining research groups in the universities, we need to enhance the dialogue with the Secretary of Culture and the Secretary of Education, for example. Historical literacy and anti-racist heritage education are fundamental for the promotion of citizenship.

Are you currently developing or coordinating any research that gives a segment to the work “Narrativas”?

Due to the covid-19 pandemic, the plans for the re-assembly of the exhibition in the context of the celebrations of Brasília’s 60th anniversary had to be suspended. But research continues. Besides the work started with undergraduate students, I have been guiding master and doctoral students and have developed my own research on individual and collective trajectories of black people in the Federal District and in the state of Goiás. Moreover, in partnership with researchers from different institutions, we are in the process of formalizing the Working Group (WG) Emancipations and Post-Abolition – Distrito Federal and Goiás, linked to the National Association of History (Anpuh).

Source: Agência Senado, SECEC


  1. Professor Pinto suggested that the meaning of this phrase is something close to “taking back what’s ours”.
About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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