May 13: What abolition? 133 years after the end of slavery in Brazil, racism and state violence still plague the black population

Note from BBT: Having been forced to take a brief hiatus in this past week, there has been a mountain of news stories that I’ve been wanting to cover since last week. The piece below isn’t necessarily an urgent post in the same manner as my post from earlier today detailing the latest of Rio Military Police’s bloodbath under the guise of a ‘war on drugs’.

This piece is more of an annual address of how Brazil’s treatment of its black population during and after the abolition of slavery set the stage for Afro-Brazil’s current situation and how it also has an influence on such outrageous displays of human rights violations such as that catastrophe in Rio last week.

Every year, Afro-Brazilian leaders, professors, activists, etc. expose why the May 13th, 1888, signing of the so-called Golden Law only freed black Brazilians on paper, as this population continues being victimized by disregard, inequality, genocide and racist acts to this day, 133 years later.

If there is one thing that we can say is an advance for black Brazilians it is the fact that the last few decades have seen the rise of a number of Afro-Brazilian professors and historians who are digging into archives, uncovering and sharing from an historic perspective, why black Brazilians remain in this position in a country that for so long had declared itself free of the racism and white supremacy that is so obvious in other countries.

Along the way, this research has delved deeper into the lives and careers of numerous Afro-Brazilians whose struggles and accomplishments deserve to be taught in schools as well as told in major motion pictures. Remember this as we continue to learn the story of the great 19th century abolitionist Luis Gama.

One other thing. Today, also happens to be the 71st birthday of the great African-American singer/songwriter/musician Stevie Wonder. When I think of Stevie’s birthday falling on the day of abolition in Brazil, I wonder if he knows how much his song ‘’Living For The City’’ could easily be applied to black folks in Brazil. I mean, when you come to understand the history of black Brazilians, you see that ‘’hard time Mississippi’’ could just as well have been called ‘’hard time Bahia’’, ‘’hard time Pernambuco’’ or ‘’hard time Rio de Janeiro’’.

May 13th marks 133 years since the end of institutional slavery in Brazil

May 13: a mark in the black struggle for citizenship for more than 133 years

May 13, 1888 marks the formal end of slavery in Brazil. However, the date is not a cause for celebration. Despite freedom, the search for rights and a dignified life endures, even after the abolition

By Cibele Moreira

A fight that has color, race and address. For centuries the Afro-Brazilian population has been looking for conditions worthy of living in society and, even with some conquered rights, it is far from ideal. After 133 years of the abolition of slavery, on May 13, 1888, the portrait that can be seen of blacks in Brazil is cruel, with high levels of violence and unemployment. According to data from the Federal District Planning Company (Codeplan), in 2018, of the 2,881,854 inhabitants of the Federal District, 1,659,995 declared themselves black, meaning black or brown, (57.6%). Most live in peripheral and low-income regions.

According to a Codeplan study, on average, blacks receive 39.4% less than the non-black population. And 15.8% of black women work as domestic servants to support their families. A reality that is reflected in the behavior experienced in 1888, after the Golden Law, which officially abolished slavery in the country. Nelson Fernando Inocêncio da Silva, 59, a professor of arts and a member of the Afro-Brazilian Studies Center at the University of Brasília (UNB), makes a historical analysis of this process. “Abolition did not allow the black population to become a citizen. The Golden Law was a way to get rid of the black population, removing responsibility, and leaving it on the margins, in the peripheries and slums. The State does not arrive with health, education and legal services. The State only arrives to repress,” he highlights.

“Abolition is the longest transition in Brazil. We have sought, for over a century, for the black population to participate and become an effective citizen, with respect to their identity. We cannot think about democracy without thinking about the black population,” emphasizes Nelson Inocêncio. “We have no guarantee that the future will be better than the present, but we have to roll up our sleeves to seek a more just condition”, says the professor.

For the district coordinator of the MNU, the Unified Black Movement of the Federal District region, Geovanny Silva, 30, the slave regime and abolition was one of the most cruel periods in the history of mankind. In his evaluation, there was a false liberation because there was no social insertion policy. “Teaching conditions, a housing policy were not given so that the black population could have their own home. We see a history of a lot of discrimination, of many social problems that are still reflected today,” he highlights.

General coordinator of Casa Akotirene, Joice Marques denounces that, after the abolition, social advances were few compared to the damage caused by slavery – (credit: Carlos Vieira / CB / DA Press)

In the opinion of Joice Marques, 34, general coordinator of Casa Akotirene – Quilombo Urbano, May 13 shouldn’t be celebrated. “It’s impossible to celebrate while we live in a very painful reality. It’s necessary to unify our discourse of resistance and struggle. In more than 130 years, there has been very little progress compared to what has been taken away. It’s necessary to have an equilibrium in the balance,” she evaluates. “It’s sad to see that, in 2021, we are fighting for the same thing as 133 years ago. Brazil is a country that has a debt with its own history. We need this reckoning,” says Joice, who works with Beatriz Velozo and Kellen Vieira at Casa Akotirene to rescue Afro-Brazilian history and the identity of the black population. The trio has been an important pillar for the needy community in the Ceilândia region of the Federal District, especially during the pandemic, with the assistance in the mental and social health of 150 families.

Achievements and challenges

Talking about the advancement of the black population is only possible by evoking the struggle of this community. “There was a lot of blood spilled for these achievements to become real. But, the main one is the criminalization of racism, this in the late 1980s, after almost 100 years of abolition. And this is an achievement that has not yet been consolidated, we have few convictions for the crime,” stresses Geovanny Silva. For him, the biggest challenge today is racism.

“We need to overcome the chaos of the public security system, which targets a young black man anyway. We see massacres, like the one that took place last week, in the Jacarezinho community, in Rio de Janeiro. They are black lives at risk. This is a big challenge. Not to criminalize the black population and its culture,” says Geovanny.

The quota policy in universities and in public exams is an element of promotion of the black population of great impact, in the analysis of the professor of the Department of History of the UnB Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto. “Brazil has benefited a lot from black social movements. The struggles for SUS (Unified Health System, public health care) involved many black militants. Affirmative action, social quota policy. Health policies to combat child mortality. May 13 is a day of struggle for the maintenance of conquered rights,” defends the professor.


Ana Flávia says that the process for the abolition of slavery in Brazil was slow and started well before 1888. “It’s important for us to talk about the black lives that are part of this struggle. Luis Gama, musician-composer Chiquinha Gonzaga, novelist Maria Firmino dos Reis, among other names, were great abolitionists,” she recalls. Black movements started and, over the last few years, have gained strength and breath.

Ana Flavia Magalhaes

According to the historian, the State did everything to prolong slavery in Brazil, with the liberation of rights made little by little. One of the first milestones occurred a few years after the country’s independence, in 1831, with the Feijó Law, which prohibited the slave trade. “But this law was not enforced, and many blacks were illegally enslaved,” explains the professor. It was only in 1850 that this type of action was eradicated in Brazilian territory.

In 1871, another milestone with the Law of the Free Womb, which allowed the babies of the slaves to be born free. In practice, the children were under the tutelage of the master, owner of the slaves, until the age of 8 and, afterwards, they could be referred to the tutelage of the State. “During this period, many mothers fled to stay with their children or paid compensation to guarantee their freedom. With this law, it was also possible to claim your freedom, but the cost was very high,” explains Ana Flávia. After 14 years, the Sexagenarian Law was enacted, authorizing the release of slaves over 60 years old. And three years later, the abolition of slavery in the country.



Feijó Law: prohibition of the slave trade that, in practice, didn’t have much effect.


Eusébio de Queiroz Law: effective end of the slave trade in Brazil.


Rio Branco Law (Free Womb Law): children of slaves are born free of the Brazilian slave regime. Opportunity to purchase freedom.


Saraiva-Cotegipe Law (Sexagenarian Law): liberation of the elderly aged 60 or over.


Golden Law: formal abolition of slavery in Brazil.


The National Anti-Racist Front (FNA), in partnership with the Central Única das Favelas (Cufa), will carry out a national act to mark the day of the abolition of slave labor in Brazil. The action is expected to take place in several regions of the country with delivery of basic food baskets in slums, quilombola, indigenous and riverside communities. In the Federal District, the initiative will deliver, today, 300 basic food baskets to families in a situation of social vulnerability in the Sol Nascente favela.

As evidenced by the recent massacre in Rio’s Jacarezinho neighborhood, racism and state violence still plague the black population 133 years after Abolition

Freedom at the hands of the black people: the true story of May 13 and Abolition

Black movement and researchers highlight social struggle of the enslaved and abolitionists to end slavery

By Lu Sudré

The sanction of the Golden Law, which exactly 133 years ago officially abolished slave labor in Brazil, consolidated May 13 as a date of protests against violence that spanned centuries and continue to victimize the black population.

A reality that, in itself, calls into question the narrative recorded for a long time in the history books that the evils of slavery would have been remedied the moment after Princess Isabel‘s signature.

Matheus Gato, professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and researcher at the Afro Center of the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), says that May 13 is an important date due to the symbolism it acquired in Brazil’s social struggles and the social process which had been interrupted, transforming the meaning of blacks belonging to the Brazilian nation.

But he explains that, throughout the 20th century, the date engendered a series of imaginary disputes about how the abolition process really took place.

“First, we had a narrative that strongly emphasized the importance of the state, in which abolition appears as a gift and not as an achievement of social movements, a popular achievement. In a way, the 13th of May was part of that narrative that the conquests of the Brazilian people, in the end, were concessions. There is the ideological trap,” points out Gato.

Seeing the Abolition process as a farce, based on the nullification of the protagonism of the popular strata, is a historical tonic of the black movement, as defended by Seimour Souza, an activist at Uneafro Brasil.

According to him, the 13th of May represents an abolition for the white population that enslaved black men and women, who, after signing the law, did not indemnify the black population and continued without creating mechanisms of support and inclusion in the labor market for ex slaves and their descendants.

For this reason, it is important to remember the date and its consequences, but in a completely opposite perspective to the celebration or recognition of the monarchy, a regime then in force in Brazil when the abolitionist law was enacted.

“May 13 is a day of denunciation against the Brazilian State, which is still responsible for the condition of poverty and vulnerability that the black population faces. Not only today, but throughout history. All of this is due to a type of unfinished abolition that left thousands of people in the dark throughout Brazil,” says Seimour.

The activist points out that the struggle of the black people for abolition arose from the first moment that an enslaved person was brought from Africa, against a regime that sought to maintain the social control of black bodies, without any benevolence:

“Our fight didn’t start yesterday, it doesn’t start today. Our ancestors once dared to dream of freedom, and we are the fruit of those dreams. We are the fruit of a people who survived the horror with pride, of a people who dreamed of a different future. We are the fruit of theorists and activists like Abdias do Nascimento, Lélia Gonzales, Guerreiro Ramos, who have long denounced the farce of abolition.”

For Matheus Gato, pointing out the abolition as a decoy, in a critical way, is interesting in that it alerts to the existence and persistence of racism, despite the end of slavery. He ponders, however, that there is a risk of incurring a simplified view of social processes.

The researcher draws a parallel with the 1988 Constitution, since, even today many rights foreseen in the Constitution are not in fact guaranteed, the Citizen Constitution is still an achievement of the struggle for democracy.

Gato also cites the call for the Coalizão Negra Por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights) for demonstrations across the country this Thursday (13), for the end of racism, black genocide and massacres as an example of re-signifying the historic date, as an important day in the anti-racist consciousness.

The mobilization demands justice for the victims in the Jacarezinho favela, in Rio de Janeiro, and for all police operations that resulted in deaths in Brazil’s favelas and communities.

Although 1888 and 2021 are very different historical moments, the researcher stresses that, when looking at both, the withdrawal of rights of the black population is one of the main points in common.

“This was what was at stake with abolition. And that is what is at stake with the fight against state violence. This is the question. Does the black population have civil rights or not? If there is any kind of permanence and continuity that has a parallel, although the language is different and the time and issues are different, it is that the instability and insecurity of Afro-Brazilian civil rights remains a harsh reality,” says Gato, organizer of the book Treze de Maio: e outras estórias do pós-Abolição (May thirteenth: and other post-Abolition stories).

The work brings together, in an unprecedented way, tales of Raul Astolfo Marques, a black writer and intellectual who lived in São Luís do Maranhão (capital city and state in the northeast) during the passage from the 19th to the 20th century. The texts portray how black people, in particular, faced the changes and transformations of the post-abolition period, emphasizing the importance of social movements and resistance to the new dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that have emerged since then.

“Invisible heroes”

In the opinion of Seimour Souza, from Uneafro Brasil, the official historiography tried to erase the resistance of exponents of the black movement by not giving visibility to their trajectories. Although the history of Zumbi dos Palmares and Dandara, for example, have become better known in recent decades, many fighters like Zacimba Gaba, Tereza de Benguela and Luísa Mahin, among others, do not receive due recognition.

Gato, for his part, endorses that the collective understanding of what abolition was as a social process, of civil mobilization, is also affected by this erasure that reached “not only large black or white abolitionists, such as Joaquim Nabuco, but ordinary people who accepted hiding an enslaved, runaway person. Escape routes, the formation of quilombos. This popular agency, in general, was left out in this process.”

He further states that the mobilization of popular extracts that fought for the freedom of the black people “changed the structure of perceptions in Brazil”.

“Abolition is not just a political reform. It was to start thinking about the world in a completely different way than it was. Rearranging the way you classify people. Feelings and conceptions change.”

Luiz Gama, from journalism to the courts

Although they tried to tell another story about the abolition process and erase the slave past, according to Ligia Fonseca Ferreira, writer and professor of Letters at the Universidade Federal de São Paulo (Unifesp), in the last 30 years a historiographical current has strengthened, accompanied by the performance of the black movement, which together strive for the recognition of the figures that made the history of Brazil.

Among the abolitionists that are references is the so-called “black quartet” composed by André Rebouças, José do Patrocínio, Ferreira de Menezes and the pioneer Luiz Gama, one of the most prominent thinkers and activists of the 19th century.

Ferreira specializes in the work of Gama, considered the greatest abolitionist in the country. Born in 1830 in the city of Salvador, Bahia, he was the son of a white father of Portuguese origin and Luiza Mahin, a free black woman who participated in insurgencies of enslaved people.

He was sold as a slave at the age of 10 and was released only at the age of 17. Self-taught, he learned to read and write on his own, and without attending the university, he studied law to advocate in defense of enslaved blacks.

Very respected by the other abolitionists and the oldest of them, he was called “our general” by journalist/activist José do Patrocínio. Gama advocated for the liberation of more than 500 slaves, without charging fees, supporting himself as a journalist.

In September last year, Ferreira organized and launched Lições de Resistência: artigos de Luiz Gama na imprensa de São Paulo e do Rio de Janeiro (Resistance Lessons: articles by Luiz Gama in the São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro press), a book published by Edições Sesc, with the aim of shedding light on Gama’s journalistic work.

“Luiz Gama inserted a black perspective in the press in São Paulo in a pioneering way. In the first periodicals he illustrated as Diabo Coxo and Cabrião, alongside Italian cartoonist Angelo Agostini. And then in the abolitionist and republican press. Luiz Gama is a constant presence in all these movements. He made the press a place to expose his ideas and show the Brazilian people, in his words, “the extravagant way” how the Justice of Brazil is administered,” comments Ferreira.

She points out that, at the time, both journalism and law were places of influence, of power, where the presence of black men was rare.

For the publication of the work, the specialist dove into physical and digital files to carry out a survey since 1864, the date on which Gama’s first publication was located, which goes back to 1882, the year in which the intellectual published his last article 15 days before dying.

Unifesp’s professor stresses the importance of the work as it allows readers to “read Luiz Gama and not about Luiz Gama”, knowing in fact the original work and the dimension of the abolitionist’s trajectory.

“The facet of the journalist cannot be overlooked. It’s not just remembering the memory of an abolitionist, but remembering the dynamics of a man who had an audience, who was heard. He wrote to be read. He did not need spokesmen. As I say, he not only wrote news, but he was news.”

The Unifesp professor details that, also as a poet, Gama marked Brazilian literature. A great orator, he defended the rights of the enslaved with the authorization of a provisioned lawyer, which allowed him to practice the profession even without a bachelor’s degree.

At a time when there was still no public defender, Luiz Gama made it possible, with his work, for countless blacks to access justice

In journalistic articles, he didn’t miss the chance to denounce the connivance of judges for the maintenance of slave property, publicizing abolitionist ideas with great rhetorical ability and acute political-legal analyses.

“We have reports and documentary evidence that Luiz Gama embodied leadership, an unlikely, rare thing, especially in the mid-19th century, where racial inferiority and congenital inability of blacks, Africans and descendants, to practice the arts and sciences were believed. Luiz Gama then, in this sense, will show exactly the opposite of all of this.”

The memory of Luiz Gama is celebrated by the 20th century black press, by black associations, and by Freemasonry, which ensured that Gama’s name was used to name streets and avenues in Brazil.

If, someday, the respectable judges of Brazil, forgetting the respect they owe to the law, and the indispensable duties, which they contracted in the face of morals and the nation, corrupted by venality or by the deleterious action of power, abandoning the sacrosanct cause of the law, and, due to an inexplicable aberration, failing with the due justice to the unfortunate ones who suffer undue slavery, I, on my own account, without asking the help of anybody, and under my sole responsibility, will advise and promote, not the insurrection, which is a crime, but ‘resistance’, which is a civic virtue […] – Luiz Gama, Correio Paulistano, November 10, 1871

The staunch anti-monarchist died in 1882, years before accomplishing his two great dreams, to which he contributed so much, to become a reality: abolition and the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889.

Over a hundred years later, Seimour Souza, a member of the black movement, condemns the continuation of policies of whitening and eugenics, such as police violence.

“We have historically been subjected to a daily routine of violence, to prison, to death, to a true genocide and to the persecution of religious expressions of African origin. It is the continuation of extermination. An attempt at ethnic erasure and despite this, the black movement has been denouncing this great farce that is racial democracy for years,” concludes the Uneafro militant.

Source: Correio Braziliense, Brasil de Fato

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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