Mercedes Guimarães was renovating her Rio de Janeiro port-area house in 1996 when the construction workers began to uncover bones.
At first, they thought they were the bones of cats and dogs.
“Whoever must have lived in your house previously, must have loved cats and dogs,” the worker told Guimarães. “It seems like whenever their cats and dogs died, they buried them in the backyard.”
Guimarães joined the worker in the backyard to see the bones. She dug through the dirt with her hands and unearthed teeth.
“I looked at the teeth and immediately knew that they weren’t from a cat or dog. They were from humans,” Guimarães, a 61-year-old Brazilian woman of Spanish and Portuguese heritage, told me.
She then found another much smaller one, probably the teeth of a child. “I was thinking that the previous owner killed his entire family,” she said. She called a lawyer and the police telling them that she had purchased a house where someone in the family murdered the entire family. But then she backtracked.
“Wait a minute. This isn’t just one, two, or three people. There’s tons of bones. I stopped to look at the six boxes of bones, and I knew this couldn’t just be one family.” She then called the neighborhood’s resident historian, Antônio Carlos Machado. Through him she learned that her street had once been named “Caminho do Cemitério,” Cemetery Path.
Guimarães immediately stopped the renovation work.
“I wanted to respect the dead,” Guimarães said.
Guimarães’ house was once the site of the Cemetério dos Pretos Novos (Cemetery of the New Blacks), where recently arrived enslaved Africans were interred during the Atlantic slave trade. Her house became an archaeological site, with graduate students unearthing the remains in her yard—all without the assistance of the city or the federal government. The remains of 26 Africans dating back to 1824, aged 3 to 25, were discovered. Brazilian social scientist Júlio César Medeiros da S. Pereira produced a master’s thesis about the social history of the cemetery. At the time Guimarães helped out with her husband’s pesticide business, but she soon found a second calling—to respectfully honor the Africans who arrived in Brazil and educate people about their journey.
Over the next 20 years, Guimarães turned her house into a private free museum and research institute—the Instituto Memória e Pesquisa Pretos Novos, or, Institute for the Memorial and Research of the New Blacks (IPN). This 3,500-square feet institute is the only place in Brazil that preserves the memory of the human cost of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Since the unearthing of the Cemetery of the New Blacks in 1996, Rio de Janeiro has come full-circle in confronting its past with the Atlantic Slave Trade.
“There was nobody who wanted to take care of this,” said Guimarães when asked why she decided to develop the institute. “We saw that nobody wanted to research, nobody wanted to do anything.”
Starting in 1597, more than 1.9 million enslaved Africans arrived in Rio de Janeiro at ports near the center of the city. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a project at Emory University, Brazil received about 4.9 million slaves through the Atlantic trade and mainland North America imported about 389,000.
From 1810 until 1840, more than 750,000 Africans arrived at Rio de Janeiro’s Valongo Wharf, just 700 meters from Guimarães’ house. Most of the new enslaved Africans were young men between the ages of 13 and 20 and many arrived terribly sick. The voyage wreaked havoc on their bodies, which were often covered in open sores and underfed. So many Africans, Pretos Novos (New Blacks), died soon after arriving in the New World, that the city had to find a burial place for them. The Cemetery of the New Blacks of the Valongo was located exactly where Guimarães lives today from 1772 until 1830 and between 20,000 to 30,000 Africans were interred in the cemetery during this period. When German naturalist G. W. Freireyss encountered the cemetery in 1814, he found cadavers unearthed by a recent heavy rain, and dozens of bodies that had yet to be interred. An unbearable stench overtook the area and made the lives of locals miserable.
By the mid-1990s, all evident ties of Rio de Janeiro’s port area to the Atlantic Slave Trade had been erased. The port where enslaved Africans had arrived had been cemented over. Valongo Street, at one time lined with shops that sold enslaved Africans, had been renamed Camerino Street.
In the last seven years, Rio de Janeiro’s port area has increasingly become an Afro-Brazilian heritage destination. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 50,000 people visited IPN, double the number who visited between 2005 and 2013. In 2011, construction workers in the port area uncovered the Cais do Valongo (Valongo wharf), where more than 500,000 enslaved Africans arrived between 1811 and 1831. An extensive campaign by locals like Guimarães led to its preservation and today people can visit its remnants. Last year UNESCO named the Cais de Valongo a World Heritage Site. Rio’s secretary of culture, Nilcemar Nogueira, has lofty dreams of building a “Museum of Slavery and Freedom” near the wharf. But this dream is far from realization.
My first visit to the institute happened in 2015, three months after I moved to Rio de Janeiro to cover the upcoming 2016 Olympic Games. I wanted to learn about the city’s black history so I signed on to take Sadakne Baroudi’s all-day Afro-Rio tour—a six-hour deep dive into the lives of Africans through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Baroudi, a black American expat, has been giving the tours for the last 10 years and it ends at IPN, the Cemetery of the New Blacks.
I had imagined a small outdoor cemetery with simple, old tombs. I wasn’t prepared to find a cemetery on a forgotten street lined with traditional Rio de Janeiro houses, restaurants, and bakeries. Guimarães still lived in her house, but she had bought the building next to hers to create the institute. The exhibit area always features a contemporary art exhibit, and back then images from Candomblé religious ceremonies covered the walls. The institute’s library collection includes every major book published about Afro-Brazilian history and culture.
Baroudi and Guimarães invited me to watch a 13-minute video that explained the history of the New Blacks, from their arrival in Rio de Janeiro until the establishment of an institute in their name.
Then I walked into the main display room, where I encountered a hole in the ground with bones—the bones of the Africans who had died shortly after arriving in Brazil. Wall displays explained the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Rio de Janeiro.
“The Pretos Novos were the captured Africans who had recently arrived in Brazil and who were soon to be exhibited for sale in the Valongo,” one sign said.
Overtime, the cemetery became a dumping ground for bodies and trash that was periodically incinerated to make way for more trash and bodies.
“A cemetery is where we ritually inter our dead,” Baroudi said. “A trash dump is where you throw things that you can’t use anymore. Black people and Africans had become things.”
During that first visit, I, along with two other Americans, stayed at IPN for hours.
“This space exists for the sole reason that Mercedes and her husband, Petrúcio, decided that this history couldn’t continue to be hidden,” said Baroudi. “Without them, this wouldn’t exist and we wouldn’t know about it.”
Most of the time, we were just silent—thankful that someone would dedicate their life to preserving the memory but shocked that it even existed. I’ve returned to the institute at least a dozen times in the last three years, and I always meet people who were just as shocked as I was. I met an Afro-Brazilian woman who was studying for her Ph.D. at an American university. She cried, distraught that she hadn’t learned anything about the Atlantic Slave Trade while in school. Another tour guide, an Afro-Brazilian woman, had just started to bring tourists to IPN three years earlier, right before the Olympic Games.
Despite the increased spotlight on Rio de Janeiro’s African heritage, the Institute of Pretos Novos almost closed in 2017. The Rio city government had financed the minimal administrative costs of IPN since 2011 but a new government cut Guimarães’ funding.
“I can’t charge people to visit a cemetery,” Guimarães said.
Supporters of the institute, Brazilians, and foreigners, banded together behind a campaign named IPNResiste! (IPN Resists) to raise money to keep the institute open.
This crisis happened as the institute was undertaking its largest archaeological project ever. Researchers uncovered its first full-skeleton from the Cemetery of the New Blacks—a young woman between the ages of 20 and 25 years who they named after the black Catholic saint, Bakhita. Visitors can see the skeleton today.
On my last visit to IPN, I met an Afro-Brazilian woman who had been visiting the institute and Guimarães’ house since 1996 and supported IPN during last year’s financial crisis.
“The first time I visited, we had no idea what everything was,” Joyce Aragão said. “It means much more than bones. The history of our country is here. It’s not easy for me to visit this. They are my family. My family came from Africa and this happened to us. I am here because someone came from Africa.”