Tribute to the blacks of Brazil: the struggle for a black monument at the beginning of the 20th century
Isis Kanashiro J. A. Soares.
In the city of São Paulo, only six of the 368 monuments standing represent black people. Luiz Gama’s bust was the first of them, conceived by Yolando Mallozzi and inaugurated in 1931. Located in Largo do Arouche, the bronze sculpture that sits on a 1.5 meter high pedestal is an important historical landmark in the struggle of the black movement, both for the trajectory of the historical figure it represents and for the efforts raised by the commission that led the fight to eternalize its first representative in a public square in the city. On the pedestal of the work, is the following inscription: ‘By the initiative of Progresso, an homage to the blacks of Brazil.’
Recognizing the history of the man portrayed in this monument is fundamental for understanding the work’s importance. Luiz Gama was born in Salvador, Bahia in 1830. When he was still a child, he was illegally enslaved and shipped to Rio de Janeiro. As a teenager, he learned to read and, at the age of 17, he ran away from the house where he lived and was able to legally prove his freedom. Gama then dedicated himself to working in the public sector and obtained the right to practice law, given his extensive knowledge in the area. From then on, he dedicated his life to freeing dozens of slaves, winning press attention with his brilliant cases and gaining countless allies from different sectors of society. His relevance was such that, on the date of his death in 1882, thousands of people participated in a funeral procession across the city of São Paulo. Almost 50 years later, when the black press initiates a campaign to raise a monument that fulfills the role of ‘elevating the name of this race,’ Luiz Gama is chosen.
The campaign for the monument, led by the newspaper Progresso, a representative of the black press, was not the only action that sought to raise important figures of the abolitionist struggle at the time. As revealed by Stumpf and Vellozo (2018), the Diário Nacional reported in 1930 – parallel to the ‘Progresso for Gama’campaign – the initiative for the construction of the bust of Ruy Barbosa, coordinated by students at the Largo de São Francisco Law School. In addition to these undertakings, other campaigns took place during this period, such as the initiative to erect a monument to Mãe Preta.
Although Luiz Gama was a respected and admired figure, raising his monument was not an easy task for the organizing committee of the Progresso newspaper. Scheduled to be inaugurated in June 1930, on the first centenary of the lawyer’s birth, the bust would only be displayed in Largo do Arouche seventeen months later. In the meantime, the commission in favor of the bust ‘Commissão Pró-Herma Luiz Gama’ suffered from government negligence, delays, interventions in the project, and the total lack of financial resources. For this reason, several fundraising events were organized, from a festival at the Municipal Theater to a soccer game with the participation of the greatest Brazilian player at the time. Progresso and other newspaper records show the difficulties faced up to the inauguration of the bust in November 1931, outside of any special date for the abolitionist movement. Meanwhile, students at Largo do São Francisco had already inaugurated much more than a bust: a statue of Ruy Barbosa in Vale do Anhangabaú, without any difficulty.
Nine decades later, the figure of Luiz Gama remains in Largo do Arouche, watching over the hustle and bustle of the busy city center. The reference that the Progresso newspaper sought to create also persists: the monument did not get lost among unknown stone figures around the city; it remains to this day a meeting point for cultural and political manifestations of the black population who recognize the memory of that space as historically theirs — ninety years later!
In recent years, Luiz Gama has gained more and more visibility and recognition. In 2021, he received the title of doctor honoris causa, granted by the institution that renounced him in his youth, the Faculty of Law of Largo de São Francisco. Several literary works are dedicated to his trajectory, including the novel Um Defeito de Cor, which is based on the story of his mother, Luiza Mahin. The wave of new books also includes the recently launched Obras Completes de Luiz Gama, which compiles the lawyer’s writings in about 5000 pages. And, finally, Luiz Gama became a film – on August 5, 2021, Doutor Gama premiered, bringing his story to the big screen.
- Instituto Pólis. Quais histórias as cidades nos contam?. 2021.
- Petrônio Domingues. A aurora de um grande feito: a herma a Luiz Gama. Revista do Programa de Pós Graduação em História. UFRGS, 2016.