Note from BW of Brazil: When many people around the world think of the black struggle for equality it is often immediately associated with figures such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers in the United States, but black liberation and true freedom after the legacy of slavery has always been a diasporic phenomenon. The 1791 rebellion in Haiti led to the establishment of the first black republic in the New World. At its peak, The Universal Negro Improvement Association of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey claimed to have a membership between 4-6 million with some 900 chapters throughout the world. In 1908, the Partido Independiente de Color, a black political party formed in Cuba, voiced Afro-Cuban grievances against their mistreatment at the hands of the country’s revolutionary government. Another example of a little known black liberation movement in the Americas is that of Afro-Brazilians after the abolition of slavery.
Michael A. Gomez (among other noted scholars) explored a bit of this history in his book Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora. Investigating black press and organizations in early 20th century Brazil, Gomez writes:
“In São Paulo, black newspapers such as A Liberdade, O Menelick and O Alfinete, published early in the 20th century, initially featured community news and information, social commentaries and reports concerning racial discrimination. These earlier newspapers gave way to O Clarim da Alvorada and Progresso in the 1920s and A Voz da Raça in the 1930s. Under the leadership of co-founder José Correia Leite, O Clarim sought to unify the African-descended community by examining the challenges of the day and by emphasizing Afro-Brazilian history. At the same time, the first Afro-Brazilian activist organization in São Paulo was founded, the Centro Cívico Palmares, its name a tribute to the famous quilombo (marron society).
“Correia Leite was a member of the Palmares organization and connected O Clarim to both an activist agenda and a diasporic vision, as Clarim published articles from the Chicago Defender and Marcus Garvey’s Negro World. Robert Abbott, publisher of the Chicago Defender, visited Brazil in 1923, and subsequently began sending his paper to O Clarim and to Progresso (the Garvey influence apparently came through an English teacher in Bahia named Mario de Vasconcelos, who sent translations of The Negro World to the offices of O Clarim). Black Brazilian consciousness took a momentous step forward in September of 1931, when the Frente Negra Brasileira, or Black Brazilian Front, was founded under the leadership of Arlindo Veiga dos Santos and others.”
But as the drive for black rights and consciousness began to grow, police and governmental forces such as DEOPS (Departamento Estadual de Ordem Política e Social or State Department of Political and Social Order) (1) also took note of these organized efforts. Although Brazil has always practiced subtle and blatant forms of discrimination against its African-descended population, elites would promote the nation as a “racial democracy”. And with the rise of militancy amongst Afro-Brazilians, these forces took action to keep these “agitators” in check. While most people associate political oppression with the Brazilian military dictatorship of 1964, as Karin Sant’Anna Kössling wrote in her dissertation on the topic, repression of social and political movements started many years before 1964:
“This vigilance of the black movements on the part of DEOPS/SP wasn’t initiated by the military regime. Since the 1930s, in general, occurred a repressive operation against Afro-Brazilian organizations, sustained by a police view that classified these associations as ‘introducers’ of the racial question in Brazil, and by consequence, generators of conflicts that could destabilize the ‘Brazilian racial democracy.’”
Although, as we will see, the first major Afro-Brazilian civil rights organization was eventually outlawed, from that period on, any and all such organizations in the future would attract the watchful eye of Brazil’s intelligence organs. According to Kössling:
“Since the 1940s black movements were systematically spied on and repressed by DEOPS, once the police understood these movements as subversives and that would lead to a crisis that could generate racial conflicts within the Brazilian “racial democracy”.
By labeling these organizations as “subversives”, these political, police and intelligence apparatuses would initiate the Brazilian method of neutralizing the racial discussion that still persists to this day: the denial of racism while maintaining the social order of racial inequality and ostracizing those who speak out. The article below reveals more details on the aspirations, experiences and being on the radar of repressive forces of the FNB in the 1930s.
Frente Negra Brasileira had its ideas suffocated
By Alessandra Mello
With the objective of securing equal social and political rights for all, the Frente Negra Brasiliera (Brazilian Black Front) was created in 1931. The organization spread throughout various regions, but it was short-lived.
Brazil already had their Black Panthers well before the movement emerged in the United States in the 1960s to guarantee the rights of the US black population; and without the necessity of using force. In September 1931, when racial discrimination and segregation were normal and acceptable practices in Brazil, a group of blacks got organized and created one of the first organizations of a national character that fought for equal social and political rights for all, regardless of skin color. It was the Frente Negra Brasileira (FNB), that later became a political party.
A social gap impedes equality between blacks and whites in the country. Without a policy of inclusion, blacks remained on the margins of Brazilian society which punished the poor and black the most. The movimento negro (black movement) was sentenced to oblivion.
Rapidly, the ideals of the Frente spread to several states, including the states of Bahia, Pernambuco, Espírito Santo, Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais. The entity had evening schools, vocational courses, and a militia (with rigid military discipline to protect blacks from abuse and aggressions), ballrooms, an official newspaper, A Voz da Raça (The Voice of the Race), and about 200 thousand members. Part of that history, virtually unknown, is stored in the Arquivo Público Mineiro (APM or Public Archives of Minas Gerais). There are documents, papers and correspondence exchanged between members of FNB and organs of repression that closely followed the work of the frente-negrinos, as the members of the organization were called.
Organized and with strict rules imposed on members, the FNB eventually became, in October 1934, the first and practically the only black Brazilian party registered with the Justiça Eleitoral (Electoral Justice). Last year, the Partido Nacional Afro Brasileiro (PNAB or Afro Brazilian National Party) was launched, still without registration at the Tribunal Superior Eleitoral (TSE or Superior Electoral Court). But the party life of FNB was short lived. In November 1937, then-President Getúlio Vargas decreed the end of parties, free elections and also the Justiça Eleitoral. The FNB was dissolved. In some municipalities the organization changed its name to escape repression, but ended up losing space and strength. Even so, it continued having to watch its steps.
Revealed in file 4.643, opened by the Departamento Estadual de Ordem Política e Social (Deops or State Department of Political and Social Order) in Minas Gerais to monitor the activities of the FNB, which had its second largest representation in the state, second only to São Paulo, the birthplace of the movement. In the collection of the Arquivo Público (Public Archives) of São Paulo documents produced about the Frente, which housed a variety of political opinions, can also be found. Among their leaders were people with more leftist positions, linked to the integralistas (2) and those who advocated the return of the monarchy.
FNB in Minas Gerais
In 17 cities of Minas Gerais, there were representations of the FNB created: the most important was in Guaxupé in southern Minas Gerais, where the central command of the Frente in the state was located. Among the DEOPS documents scanned by Arquivo Público Mineiro (APM or Public Archive of Minas Gerais), are copies of the FNB statute, newspaper clippings about the Movimento Negro in the state, a long exposition of the coordinator of the Frente Negra in Minas Gerais, Pio Damião, to the head of police Ernesto Dornellas, on the allegations made by Integralistas that the front was “Communist”, and requests to maintain at least recreational activities after the dissolution of the parties.
In this document, Pio Damião ensures that the Frente had no leftist orientation. Their goal was the “uplifting and unification of the black race, which, since the 1888 abolition of slavery, had been struggling with enormous sacrifices, both of a moral and intellectual nature, and therefore deserved the support of every honest citizen,” says the document, dated July 1937. Four months later FNB became illegal. To work around this situation, it was transformed into a recreational society. This happened, for example, in Cássia, in southern Minas Gerais, where the Frente was renamed Sociedade Negra Princesa Isabel (Princess Isabel Black Society). Even with the name change, was closed in March 1938 as one of DEOP’s documents reveals.
Son of slaves
In Guaxupé, the people who tell the story of the Frente are the granddaughter and nephew of Pio Damião, Suely Santos , 64, a teacher, and Nelson Ramos Damião, 67, a retiree. According to Nelson, with dictatorship of the Estado Novo (New State) the Frente in Guaxupé was renamed Associação Recreativa Pio Damião (Pio Damião Recreation Association), defunct for about 15 years. A son of slaves, Pio Damião started working as a cook in the Santa Casa (3) of the city, and was promoted to “empirical nurse.” Dismissed from the hospital, he set up a funeral home and a public clinic with his wife Gerónima, a midwife, to tend to patients refused by the hospital, mainly blacks.
Suely Santos says that Damião’s ideal was promoting blacks. “He did not want for blacks to only be domestic servants and working the land. He wanted everyone to go to school, have a home and the same rights as whites.” As he was respected, says Sueli, Damião had permission to frequent the club where he met with whites.” But they say that he was not comfortable seeing his people from the outside, being prevented from entering. Thus he decided to set up an association to advance blacks.”
Having died in 1945, Pio Damião became the name of a street and a health clinic, but records of his actions in defense of black people almost don’t exist anymore. Suely, who lives in the house that belonged to Damião, saved some photos and no documents. The paperwork that the family inherited was handed over to historians and ended up disappearing, the teacher said.
Source: Estado de Minas, Gomez, Michael A. Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Kössling, Karin Sant’ Anna. As lutas anti-racistas de afro-descendentes sob vigilância do DEOPS/SP (1964-1983). Master’s Dissertation in History. Departamento de História da Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2007.
1. The Departamento de Ordem Política e Social (DEOPS or Department of Political and Social Order), created in 1924, was a Brazilian government agency used mainly during the Estado Novo and later the military regime in 1964, which aimed to control and repress political and social movements opposed to the regime in power. Source
2. Integralista defines persons who follow an ideology known as Integralismo, Integralism, or Integral nationalism, which is an ideology according to which a nation is an organic unity. Integralism defends social differentiation and hierarchy with co-operation between social classes, transcending conflict between social and economic groups. It advocates trade unionism (or a guild system), corporatism, and organic political representation instead of ideological forms of representation. Integralism claims that the best political institutions for given nations will differ depending on the history, culture and climate of the nation’s habitat. Often associated with blood and soil conservatism, it posits the nation or the state or the nation state as an end and a moral good, rather than a means. The term integralism was coined by the French journalist Charles Maurras, whose conception of nationalism was illiberal and anti-internationalist, elevating the interest of the state above that of the individual and above humanity in general. Somewhat rooted in the Portuguese integralist tradition, the Brazilian integralist movement led by Plínio Salgado – Ação Integralista Brasileira – became the largest political party ever found in Brazil, with over a million members, even though it lasted less than six years as a legally recognized organization. Source
3. Santa Casa is a brotherhood whose mission is to treat and support the sick and disabled, as well as assisting “exposed” – abandoned newborns in the institution. Source