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Tour Rio De Janeiro's Oldest Slave Port With This New App


Brazil was the last country in the West to abolish slavery. By the time it did that in 1888, Rio de Janeiro had become the largest slave port in the Americas. As the city developed, the remains of the port disappeared under pavement. It was rediscovered six years ago, and now some Rio residents have created an app to experience its history. Catherine Osborn brings us this story.


CATHERINE OSBORN, BYLINE: It was during a project to install light rail in Rio's port area when construction workers found the massive rectangular stones of the city's old slave dock still existed underground. An estimated 900,000 enslaved Africans were unloaded here at Valongo Wharf. Last week, UNESCO named the wharf a world heritage site, calling it, quote, "the most important physical trace of the arrival of African slaves on the American continent." Giovanni Harvey is a local businessman who helped prepare the application to UNESCO.

GIOVANNI HARVEY: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Harvey says, "the victory for Brazil's racial justice movement is part of remembering something that many people want to forget." During last year's Olympics, Rio's government directed tourists to the brand new $55 million Museum of Tomorrow - this despite ongoing archaeological research at the dock and at a nearby grave for thousands who died on slave ships. Harvey is one of many Rio residents trying to get visitors to think differently.

MARIANA SIMOES: People have started to sort of take that preservation into their own hands.

OSBORN: Marianna Simoes is a journalist at Publica, a nonprofit news site. Her team thought the port's history was so important that they designed a smartphone app around it in Portuguese and English. She says it's inspired by the Pokemon Go model of an augmented reality game. They call it The Museum of Yesterday. Simoes took me near the water's edge in the port area to show how it works.

SIMOES: To actually unlock all of the contents of the app, you have to be physically in the port area.

OSBORN: What do the icons look like? We've got a paintbrush.

SIMOES: Yeah, so you have - each icon represents a different type of content. So for the paintbrush, that's the workshops of artists in the area.

OSBORN: As we walk around, different icons pop up with tales of bribery schemes ancient and modern, reports of activists tortured during Brazil's dictatorship and...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For sale - wet nurse, black.

OSBORN: ...Recordings of old newspaper ads selling slaves.

SIMOES: We have the Samba Tour. We have the Corruption Tour. We have the tour of the Brazilian history express, the Terror Tour. And we have the Ghosts of the Port Area's Past.

OSBORN: Black activists here stress that remembering the biggest ghost, slavery, means not just remembering suffering but resistance to it. That resistance plays a big role in The Museum of Yesterday app. Gabriele Roza, who helped research the app, is on the tour with us.

GABRIELE ROZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: She points out an icon for Quilombo, one of Brazil's many runaway slave communities. The app explains it's in the heart of a neighborhood historically known as Little Africa because of the way people dressed, cooked, worshiped and made music.

ROZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: "Real Samba music was born here from African drumming traditions," Roza explained. Roza is a member of the first black student organization at one of Rio's most prestigious universities. The group is only one year old. As we arrive at Valongo Wharf, she tells me Brazil is at the very beginning of understanding the relationship between slavery in its past and the corruption and inequality of today.

ROZA: (Speaking Portuguese).

OSBORN: Roza says, "putting on your tennis shoes and taking a journey through the port is a good metaphor for the work of taking history seriously." Already, each afternoon, visitors come and sit quietly by the wharf's centuries-old stones. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Osborn in Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAN FERMIN SONG, "BRIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.