Explore Rio de Janeiro’s Hidden African Roots in This Walking Tour

Lead Photo: Photo: Gian Cornachini
Photo: Gian Cornachini
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With an 80 percent black population, Salvador de Bahia’s African history is ubiquitous. According to The Root, Salvador’s connections to its African roots is visible in everything from music, religion, and food. However, when it comes to Rio de Janeiro, the same influences aren’t always readily recognized. Rio’s actually home to Valongo wharf – the place where the largest number of slaves disembarked in all of the Americas.

Historian Sadakne Baroudi’s intent on unpacking this history on her website, AfroRio Walking Tour. There, she highlights sites that play a crucial role in understanding Rio’s African history. But some have criticized her work. “I get a lot of very polite suggestions to move to Salvador, Bahia,” Baroudi told me. “There’s a tremendous resistance to talking about Black Rio hidden in the romantic construction of Salvador as the ‘African Heritage’ city. I joke that Black is Rio’s biggest secret.”

A 2014 Miami Herald article titled “Recovering Rio de Janeiro’s black history,” suggests that much of Rio’s black history remains hidden just under the surface. When excavators prepared to work on a port revitalization project, for example, they uncovered Valongo wharf beneath Imperial wharf. “It is history that was more or less hiding in the midst of a busy modern-day city,” the article states.

Baroudi echoes this, explaining that what happened hundreds of years ago “is still unfolding in front of us.” And she’s put in many hours to make sure that others know about it, too. She hasn’t received any funding for this project, but for her, it’s necessary so that it can further discussion among diasporic African communities. But for her, AfroRio Walking Tour really came about because she wanted to explore why Brazil and the United States treat race differently.

“The project came out of my personal experiences when I first moved to Brazil,” she said. “I was encountering the same types and kinds of racial microaggression in Rio that were common in the US. Yet, whenever I tried to talk about them, I found that race was a taboo subject. It was quite confusing. The project came out of my personal quest to understand why the US ended up with a race-based ‘one drop’ system while Brazil ended up with a colorist caste-like system.”

Recording these places is also extremely important at a time when Rio has undergone infrastructural changes. In the last two years, Brazil’s hosted the World Cup and the Olympics, and it has come at the expense of black neighborhoods. In July, news broke that a group of descendants of runaway slaves accused a development company of building 1,500 luxury apartments atop sacred grounds.

Currently, there are fewer than 10 places listed on her website, but she continues to work on it regularly, so that she can build a space for anyone to easily learn more about African history in Rio. She’s off to a good start. In the about year since the launch of the site, people have accessed Afro-Rio Walking Tour from 30 different countries.

As she continues to discover Rio’s rich history, here are four places you must visit to gain a deeper understanding of Brazil’s past, present, and future:


Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Benedict Church

This church dates back to 1640, but construction on this structure began decades later in 1700, before being completed in 1700. In the 1800s, the church stood as the place Afro-Brazilians congregated for religious, social, and political reasons. In 1967, the church – which remains open to the public – became damaged in a fire. Learn more here.


The Imperial Palace at Plaza XV

Nowadays, the Imperial Palace of Rio serves as a cultural hub. But the plaza – built in 1743 – has a dark, and many times, hidden past. The same place that’s now filled with restaurants, a coffee shop, and galleries also served as a slave market. Learn more here.


Little Africa

Near the Salt Stone – steps that Africans carved out to make it easier to carry sacks of salt from the wharves to other neighborhoods – you’ll find a predominantly black neighborhood. According to the Miami Herald, this neighborhood became inhabited by many freed slaves after slavery was abolished in 1888. This is where Samba and Carnaval were born. Learn more here.


Cemetery of the New Blacks

After a couple began fixing their home in the Gamboa neighborhood of Rio in 1996, they discovered bones. Evidence suggests that this cemetery – in operation from 1769 to 1830 – later became a dump. Learn more here.