What happened to the black Brazilian woman on May 14, 1888?: The day after the abolition of slavery

Unknown Brazilian caregiver, ama de leite (wet nurse), Tia Ciata and Tia Josefa, a baiana de acaraje, actress Léa Garcia, journalist Glória Maria, singer Clara Nunes, singer/dancer Regina Ribeiro
Unknown Brazilian caregiver, ama de leite (wet nurse), Tia Ciata and Tia Josefa, a baiana de acaraje, actress Léa Garcia, journalist Glória Maria, singer Clara Nunes, singer/dancer Regina Ribeiro

Black women on May 14th, 1888

It was a sunny Sunday, when Princess Isabel signed the Lei Áurea (Golden Law) which abolished Slavery in Brazil.

When the princess arrived, the crowd anxiously stood in silence.

For it was enough for her to complete the signing, to echo a burst of applause and bravos.

The city had never seen such a party! Entire families wept for joy. Enemies of the previous evening embraced each other.

The 13th of 1888 was a milestone in the lives of thousands of African men and women and the still enslaved black population

Era um domingo de sol, quando a princesa Isabel assinou a Lei Áurea que Aboliu a Escravidão no Brasil.
Quando a princesa chegou, a multidão, ansiosa, ficou em silêncio.
Pois bastou ela completar a assinatura, para ecoar uma explosão de bravos e aplausos.
A cidade nunca tinha visto festa igual! Famílias inteiras choravam de alegria. Inimigos da véspera abraçavam-se.
O dia 13 de maio de 1888 foi um marco na vida de milhares de homens e mulheres africanas e a população negra ainda escravizada.

Machado de Assis*

Note from BW of Brazil: Today’s piece by Deise Benedito sums up some of the very reasons why this blog exists. Why is the black woman of Brazil often relegated to the bottom of the social ladder in terms of value, image and appreciation? In Brazil today, and arguably for the past 475 years, in the nation’s social imagination, black women is either a maid or a “mulata”. The popular saying in Brazil posits that the “white woman is for marriage, the mulata woman is for sex and the black woman is for work (branca para casamento, mulata para fornicar, negra para trabalho)”, thus reducing the black woman down to her capacity for work and her sexuality. But how did this happen? what changed the day after May 13, 1888, the day slavery officially ended in Brazil? Although there’s no way one short essay can explain the past 125 years, it’s a good start.

By Deise Benedito **

However, on Monday, May 14th, would begin the most perverse path of young and old, black men and women, in Brazil, now in the condition of “ex-slave”.

Many of the former slave masters found themselves still unhappy with the law that made slavery extinct throughout the national territory; several lawmakers lobbied for the Law to be revoked. In several states security was reinforced, fearing looting and revenge against the slave masters.

In the legal sphere – the transition of the slave to free man and woman – nothing welcomed them: no policy in the field of economy, education, health, housing; no commitment was reached with this population, now free.

For young and old black women – now in the condition of ex-slaves – a new challenge is put in place: to survive and rebuild their lives, that of their children, husbands, nephews and grandchildren. Now free, many could no longer continue on the farms of their masters. Those who were already working as street vendors must now expand their activities. They would also become washerwomen, ironers, wet nurses, nannies, housekeepers, cooks, confectioners, housekeepers and maids; for many, in exchange for a plate of food, a place of humiliating and unhealthy conditions, to guarantee their survival, often far from their families.

However, the image of the black woman is seen as an ex-slave whose “housewife/lady of the house” did her a favor when offering her work in exchange for room and board. And this is seen in the eyes of many, as “protection”, and such an attitude allows that orders and abuses be inflicted against these women inside several houses; all received with passivity.

This, when young, is also seen as “good use” in the white world, whose corpulence is transformed into a sex object. When possessing large breasts, transforms her into a wet nurse, and through breastfeeding, would guarantee healthy heirs of future presidents, justices, judges, ministers, secretaries of state, governors and mayors of Brazil.

Through devotion and affection for the family to which she provided services, often times not having time for rest and were prevented from monitoring the growth and education of their own children, grandchildren, nephews.

The trajectories of black women, now with advanced age and suffering from various diseases caused by the inhuman working conditions, the worst accommodations and little or no proper food, led them to begging at the doors of the churches, in the hope that the public trust could ease the suffering and neglect due to years and years of work without any compensation.

Another essential factor for post-abolition survival was the religion that shaped Brazilian culture. Many of these women assumed leadership of the Afro-Brazilian socio-religious communities. These women were holders of the divine power of the orixás (1) and their ancestors to deal with these situations.

At the same time these women became feared and respected, through the mysteries and powers supported by an inviolable wisdom and then African codes and symbols.

Generations of black women survived the rigor of slavery by religiosity. Now they had to resist religious prejudice and persecutions, as a form of cultural resistance and continuity in defense of their ethical and cultural values.

It came quietly in the basements of the slave ship, witnessing all the atrocities committed against men, women and children during slavery. It became the lullaby for pain and suffering, spread in the slave quarters. After the abolition of slavery, a new rhythm appeared in Rio de Janeiro, and it would spread throughout Brazil, winning new fans and new instruments. This rhythm entered the houses of the baiana Tia Ciata, Tia Amélia (Donga’s mother), Priciliana (mother of João da Baiana, meaning João from Bahia) (2) and settled into their backyards, in the hills and alleys, so that musicians and drummers could play and sing around a huge table full of bottles and delicacies, broths, feijoada (3), which would ensure the livelihood of many families on weekends, requesting the passage to dignity that became the cultural heritage of humanity: Samba.

With the growth of industrialization, black women began to extend their knowledge to step into the job market.

Brazil went through several changes in the political and social realm. It was now a republic and the first feminist women in Brazil would manifest in 1910, founding the Partido Republicano Feminino (Feminine Republican Party) and having as founder Leonilda Daltro in Rio de Janeiro.

In 1922 the Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino (Brazilian Federation for Feminine Progress) was founded, which developed the campaign for women’s suffrage. The success in its deeds and conquest of the vote for women came about.

But the success of this achievement was owed to the fact that many black women, maids and nannies, stayed at home, raising children and husbands of these women, to ensure this achievement.

The policy started to boil in the whole national territory. The Frente Negra Brasileira (Brazilian Black Front) (4) was created on 9/16/1931, in São Paulo, born of outrage of self-sacrificing black men and women, having as one of its objectives the integration of blacks into the labor market, in addition to combating prejudice and discrimination of which they were victims.

The Frente Negra Brasileira had its Departamento Feminino (Women’s Department) which was responsible for the literacy of black men, black women, children and youth. The FNB constituted itself into a movement of national character, with international repercussions, and then made extinct in 1938 by the then President Getúlio Vargas, 50 years after abolition.

In 1944, the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN) (5) was born, with Abdias do Nascimento at the head and the first black actress: Ruth de Souza. TEN’s Departamento Feminino was the responsibility of Mrs. Maria Nascimento who founded the Conselho Nacional das Mulheres Negras (National Council of Black Women), composed mostly of black women domestic workers. Below we transcribed some excerpts from her speech on the night of its foundation, on June 18, 1950.

A Integração da Mulher de Cor na Vida Social (The Integration of Women of Color in Social Life)

“The black woman suffers several social disadvantages because of her cultural unpreparedness, because of poverty and the lack of adequate professional education.”

The Conselho Nacional das Mulheres Negras (National Council of Black Women) will have a specialized sector on subjects relating to women and children. This Departmento Feminino has as an objective fighting for the integration of black women in social life, for its economic, cultural and educational uplifting.

“We want to make function immediately a course of culinary arts, sewing, literacy, typing, admission, gym and more. We will depend on volunteer teachers. It will be a voluntary campaign for the educational elevation of black women.”

The following sectors of the Conselho Nacional de Mulheres Negras will operate immediately

• Children’s Ballet

• Education and Instruction

• Orientation Course for Mothers

• Children’s Theatre

• Legal Assistance – Criminal lawyer Dr. Celso Nascimento

• Sociological Guidance – Prof. Guerreiro Ramos

• Cutting and Sewing – Nina de Barros

• Tricot – Mrs. Natalina Santos Correa

• Embroidery – Caty Silva

• Swimming – Caramuru Amaral

• Physical Education – Alberto Cordovil

• Typing – Milka Cruz

Parts of the discourse in the late 1940s already indicated the paths to be constructed by black women in Brazil, over the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, coming to the twenty-first century.

We know that the culture of violence stemming from the period of slavery is still present in all spheres of Brazilian social life. Black women always developed the battle against the ideology of slavery, reliving and recreating tales, legends, myths and recreating the civilizational heritage in the African Diaspora.

Racial discrimination and violence are social problems that affect black women and prevent them from having a decent life and being respected as citizens. Their representation in society is not seen by their qualities and values, competence and wisdom. Even so she survives in an insane fight to support herself and her family, to revive and to maintain black consciousness.

They were not guaranteed the basic and fundamental rights of the human person: access to paid work with dignity, housing, adequate health care, respect for their ethical, social, cultural and moral values.

Black women went on to organize themselves into neighborhood associations, samba schools, the social movement and the Movimento Negro (black movement). They started to demand their rights. They pointed out that racial discrimination and domestic violence are aggravating factors in their lives; they participate in the political life of Brazil, in seminars, meetings, lectures, national and international congresses.

The Conference of the UN System, such as ECO ‘92, the Cairo Population Conference, Conference on Women in Beijing, Human Rights Conference in Vienna, the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, accounting for the presence of black women working in NGOs in the social movement and political parties, even with their representation greatly reduced or absent in the National Congress, Legislative Assemblies throughout the country.

Countless black women, present in various mobilizations, create networks, forums and articulations in positions of government, where they present their agendas for demands.

Young black women, in turn, began to organize and participate actively in the discussions of the feminist movement and black women’s movement, fighting homophobia, trafficking in women and sexual exploitation. The flagship issues of the black women’s movement are “fighting violence against women and domestic violence,” “abuse and mistreatment of children and adolescents”, “guarantee of protection for mothers during and after pregnancy”, “combating child labor” . The struggles of the black women’s movement are the implementation of affirmative action and monitoring of public policies aimed at the egalitarian relationships between men and women, the need for training of public managers for the implementation of public policies in the area of gender and race, the ownership of remaining quilombo (6) lands, the adoption of quotas in universities, the need to improve the quality of education, increasing the number of vacancies in higher education, access to justice, security and decent housing; recognition of Labor Rights maids; ending violence and institutional racism in “febems” (Fundação Estadual para o Bem Estar do Menor or State Foundation for the Well-Being of the Minor), prisons, psychiatric hospitals and asylums.

One of the main challenges for black women organized in the XXI century is the fight against neo-liberalism, for the end of inequality, religious intolerance and a positive affirmation of black women, youth and elderly in the media. The necessity of recognizing these young, elderly black women, as agents of transformation and a symbol of resistance having has its origin in Africa. In the moment in that their ancestors were captured, imprisoned upon vessels embarking to the new world, the lack of dignity was established and perpetuated during the Atlantic crossing. The strength of these women lasted throughout the period of slavery, remaining as a legacy of gold until the present day.

The trajectory of black women for the dignity of the human person has always been in a constant search for reparations. It is a guarantee that nothing was guaranteed to young and elderly black women on May 14, 1888.


Hunot, Silva Lara.  Campos da Violência.
Fraga Valter.  Meninos, Moleques e Mendigos.
Nascimento, Abdias.  Quilombo: vida, problemas e aspirações do negro.
Benedito, Deise. Deserdados do Destino.

Deise Benedito
Deise Benedito

**- Deise Benedito is the Coordinator of Policy Articulation and Human Rights of the Fala Preta Organização de Mulheres Negras (Fala Preta ((Speak Black Woman)) Organization of Black Women), Secretary of the Fórum Nacional de Mulheres Negras (National Forum of Black Women), Member of the Conselho Nacional de Promoção da Igualdade Racial (National Council for the Promotion of Racial Equality) – CNPIR.

Source: Ala de Baianas


* – Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, often known as Machado de Assis, Machado, or Bruxo do Cosme Velho (June 21, 1839 – September 29, 1908), was a Brazilian novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and advocate of monarchism. Widely regarded as the greatest writer of Brazilian literature, nevertheless he did not gain widespread popularity outside Brazil in his own lifetime. He was multilingual, having learned French, English, German, and Greek later in life, all by himself. Source

1. An orixá (also spelled orisha or orisa) is a spirit or deity that reflects one of the manifestations of God in the Yoruba spiritual or religious system. This religion has found its way throughout the world and is now expressed in practices as varied as Candomblé, Lucumí/Santería, Shango in Trinidad (Trinidad Orisha), Anago and Oyotunji, as well as in some aspects of Umbanda, Winti, Obeah, Vodun and a host of others. These varieties, or spiritual lineages as they are called, are practiced throughout areas of Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, Togo, Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, Uruguay, Argentina and Venezuela among others. As interest in African indigenous religions (spiritual systems) grows, Orisha communities and lineages can be found in parts of Europe and Asia as well. While estimates may vary, some scholars believe that there could be more than 100 million adherents of this spiritual tradition worldwide. Source: Wiki

2. Ernesto dos Santos (1889-1974), better known as Donga and João Guedes Machado (1887-1974), better known as João da Baiana, were sons of the baianas (Bahia from the state of Bahia) Tia (aunt) Amélia and Tia Priciliana, black women who migrated from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro, bringing, like other contemporaries, a very dense Nigerian culture, very well known by the strength of their religiosity. João da Baiana and Donga were participants in the many parties hosted at Tia Ciata’s house where the popular Brazilian music style known as Samba took shape. Donga is credited with having recorded the first Samba “Pelo Telefone” in 1917.

3. Feijoada is a national Brazilian cuisine. It is made with beans, beef and pork and served over rice.

4. The Frente Negra Brasileira (Brazilian Black Front) was founded on September 16, 1931 and lasted until 1937, becoming a political party in 1936. It was the most important Afro-Brazilian entity of the first half of the century that advocated for equal rights and full citizenship of black Brazilians. The organization had branches in various parts of the country including  São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais and other states. Under the leadership of Arlindo Veiga dos Santos, the organization developed several political, cultural and educational activities of a  for its members. It held lectures, seminars, promoted literacy and sewing workshops and promoted music festivals. At its headquarters it ran the organization’s official newspaper O Menelik, which was succeeded by O Clarim d’Alvorada, under the direction of José Correia Leite and Jayme de Aguiar.

5. In the 1940s, when in Brazilian theaters, white actors painted their faces black to represent black people, Abdias Nascimento, a militant of black consciousness, decided to change this racist attitude. On October 13, 1944, he created the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), which began its activities in Rio de Janeiro, with a cast consisting of maids, laborers and slum dwellers, all black. The purpose of the TEN was not only cultural and artistic, but also social, according to the Abdias. “The need for the foundation of this movement was inspired by the imperative of social organization of people of color, with a view to raising their cultural level and their individual values​​,” he explained. Long-time actresses such as Ruth de  Souza and Lea Garcia honed their crafts with TEN that gave exposure to Afro-Brazilian actors/actresses in a Brazil where the most time blacks spent on stages were in cleaning them.

6. A quilombo from the Kimbundu word kilombo) is a Brazilian hinterland settlement founded by people of African origin including the Quilombolas, or Maroons. Most of the inhabitants of quilombos(called quilombolas) were escaped slaves and, in some cases, later these escaped African slaves would help provide shelter and homes to other minorities of marginalized Portuguese, Brazilian aboriginals, Jews and Arabs, and/or other non-black, non-slave Brazilians who experienced oppression during colonization. However, the documentation on runaway slave communities typically uses the term mocambo to describe the settlements. “Mocambo” is an Ambundu word that means “hideout”, and is typically much smaller than a quilomboQuilombo was not used until the 1670s and then primarily in more southerly parts of Brazil.

A similar settlement exists in other Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America, and is called a palenque. Its inhabitants are palenqueros who speak various Spanish-African-based creole languages. Quilombos are identified as one of three basic forms of active resistance by slaves. The other two are attempts to seize power and armed insurrections for amelioration. Typically, quilombos are a “pre-19th century phenomenon”. The prevalence of the last two increased in the first half of 19th century Brazil, which was undergoing both political transition and increased slave trade at the time. Source: Wiki

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. Thanks for this post.

    Six months ago I was in Brazil researching my Brazilian ancestry. My ancestor was an Afro-Brazilian who left Salvador around the time of the Malé Revolt of 1835. A single mother of three children, she left the hardships of Brazil with her cousin in search of a better life by returning back to her ancestral homeland- Africa (Yoruba land). The cousins later visited Ghana (then Gold Coast) with a group of other Afro-Brazilian returnees and they were shown so much hospitality (including prosperous land given to them as gifts from the Chief) they chose to stay. The local Ga tribe called them ‘Tabom’ because it is said that this was their response to questions asked!

    So I am a ‘Tabom’ descendant! It was really interesting being in Brazil and envisioning how my life would have been had my ancestor not taken the brave decision to return to Africa…

    I was saddened by the status of many black people. And how I was perceived, being a dark skinned African woman. Of course it’s not very obvious that I’m a foreigner until I start speaking! I didn’t experience out right racism- thank goodness! However racism comes in many disguises and there were little things that people (non black) said that made me wonder if there was some underlining meaning. Their expectations of black people is so low, that my minor achievement of being an African visiting Brazil was incomprehensible. While there were many negative observations, there were plenty of positive to match!! And for me as an African, I was very proud to see so much African heritage that has been preserved. I hope black women of Brazil will continue feel empowered.

    Overall it was a positive experience for me to be in the country my ancestor left before the abolition of slavery in Brazil…

  2. This is the story of most ppl of African decent in the Americas & some of Africa. U did an excellent job of sharing the story of most of our mothers, grandmothers, great grand and more. This also allows many to infer what was happening to the men of color. Thank you for sharing our truth in such a powerful way!

  3. The sister did an excellent job with this essay. I want to learn everything I can about the experiences during/after slavery in the Americas of Black women & girls.

  4. Great Read! I want to learn as much as possible about what happened to us after we were shipped to different parts of the world.

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