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If you don't know where you're going, don't bother trying to find the place. I would have never made it myself but for a stroke of luck when I showed up in the closest town, Pinheiro Machado, and started asking around. The vice-mayor was about to head right past it, on the way to some sort of meeting in another little town even deeper into the rolling prairie. I followed him in my car, west on the highway for a stretch, then rattling north for a dozen or so slow, dusty miles on an unmarked dirt road, till suddenly, he pulled over, jumped out, pointed to the right and said, "There it is." Then he shook my hand, hopped back in his own car and roared off to his meeting.

The silence soon swallowed him, leaving me and a wheeling vulture to contemplate a small, fading plaque that commemorates a long-ago massacre out here on the lonely pampas in the big-sky country of southern Brazil. It was a surprise attack, under the cover of darkness in November, 1844. By the time the sun rose, more than 100 men were dead. They were soldiers fighting a war, yes, but this was something more sinister than a plain old bloody battle. It was racially motivated betrayal.

The plaque sits at the foot of a small hill called Sel, crowned with a grove of gnarled eucalyptus trees. From the top, the view goes on forever, out over an undulating, empty stretch of country, dull green now in the late summer sun. Imagine the high seas, suddenly turned into grass. Some say the place is haunted. Some of the old folks won't speak of its bloody past at all. As a stranger in these parts, I feel relatively unconstrained by the weight of local history, and follow the modern-day controversies it spawns from the outside.

Even still, thousands of miles from my home in Virginia, it was a familiar sort of place—one of those battle-scarred sites where I can't help but imagine the savagery that once shook the very earth beneath me. But there's a darker parallel invoked on this gentle hillside, too: Perpetrating and subsequently disremembering brutal acts of racial violence, like what occurred here on Cerro dos Porongos, are cultural traditions that the United States and Brazil have in common.

In 1835, feeling aggrieved and neglected by the distant authorities in Rio de Janeiro, a collection of idealists and revolutionaries in the state of Rio Grande do Sul declared their independence from Brazil. This wasn't well received by the imperial court, which dispatched an army to deal with the rebels down south. Outgunned and outnumbered, the revolutionaries adopted guerilla tactics, striking fast and disappearing again into the endless grass. They were a ragged bunch, and proudly embraced the term Farrapos—Ragamuffins—that was originally used to mock them.

Desperate for manpower and vaguely aligned with the abolitionist movement (in word, though often not in deed) the Ragamuffin leaders––all wealthy white men–– promised liberty to enslaved Black people who fought for southern independence. Before long, ex-slaves became a large and important part of the rebel forces. But after 10 years of fighting, the Brazilian army wore the rebels down and eventually, put them in checkmate. Terms of surrender were drawn up and signed, the wayward region was pacified, and the ages continued to roll.

While the winners go on to write the history books, the defeated create entire mythologies to explain their loss and reframe it as an even greater and more glorious victory, a past adversity that defines the present. And so, as I discovered when I moved from Virginia to southern Brazil in 2015, a sort of Rebel Pride rages on in Rio Grande do Sul, whose state flag is the same one the Ragamuffins fought beneath. A heap of streets, including the one I live on, in the state capital of Porto Alegre are named for Ragamuffin heroes who, in the valiant retelling, stood up to tyranny and fought for their people and, in some cases, died with their boots on. Every September, all over the state, gaúchos—as people here proudly call themselves—dress up in costume and parade around on horseback and throw huge parties in celebration of this lost cause. There is a famous gaúcho singer named Joca Martins who croons, in a song called "The War We Didn't Lose": whoever says that we celebrate a war we lost // doesn't see that it won us our identity.

Perpetrating and subsequently disremembering brutal acts of racial violence, like what occurred here on Cerro dos Porongos, are cultural traditions that the United States and Brazil have in common.

Of course, wars are ugly, wretched things, and the historical facts are often inconvenient to the glorious narratives plastered over them afterwards. As the Ragamuffin War was drawing to a close and leaders of the two sides began negotiating terms of a surrender, the fate of the Black soldiers fighting for the rebel cause—the formerly enslaved who'd been promised their freedom—became a major sticking point. The government wasn't about to honor that promise of liberty made by the leaders of the sputtering revolution, and those sputtering revolutionaries weren't in a strong position to negotiate. In any case, their commitment to the abolitionist movement proved hollow when put to the test. They viewed the prospect of trained Black soldiers at large after the war as threatening, as a menace to their own social power. Both sides agreed that the easiest thing to do would be to get rid of them.

In mid-November, 1844, the last remnants of the Ragamuffin army were hunkered down on that hill called Cerro dos Porongos, divided into separate camps for Black and white soldiers, as was their custom. The rebel commander sent word to the imperial army that was closing in, revealing their location so that—as had been previously arranged—the Brazilian cavalry could stage a nighttime attack on the Black soldiers' camp. The betrayal went according to plan. Most of them were killed. The survivors were soon rounded up and handed back over to the imperial government, which returned them to slavery––an ignominious conclusion to a decade-long conflict that is widely remembered today as a struggle for freedom and liberty.

"It was the great failure, the great contradiction of the Ragamuffin War," says Juarez Machado, a poet and a writer who lives in the nearby town Piratini, a monument-laden little town that was the first Ragamuffin capital during the war.

Zooming out, this betrayal of the Black Ragamuffins comes into focus as simply another entry in a much longer ledger of shared failure and contradiction that continues to define and diminish the stories of Brazil and the United States. In both these enormous countries, enormous wealth has been built on the backs of enslaved Black people, enormous inequality, injustice, and institutionalized anti-Black violence persist to this day, and history is littered with reminders that, flowery declarations aside, all men are not created equal.

Cerro dos Porongos, site of the 1844 massacre of Black soldiers during the Brazilian Civil War. Credit: Andrew Jenner

In the governor's mansion in downtown Porto Alegre, there hangs a painting commissioned by the state in the 1950s to depict the history and heritage of the gaúchopeople. Not long after my trip to the pampas, I stopped by for a visit but was turned away at the door. Renovations were underway and the painting was covered up and hidden from view. It was fitting: The painting itself has gained some notoriety for its own role in covering up and obscuring the past. Done in a style that recalls the American Regionalist murals of the WPA era, it contains a mishmash of scenes and characters (the Internet was still open for business, and I was able to check out the painting there). None of the well-muscled, wholesome people it portrays—riding horses, harvesting wheat, raising families, tending campfires, taming the frontier—are Black.

It's a glaring omission, give the fact that throughout most of the 19thcentury, more than a third of Rio Grande do Sul's population was Black. The vast majority of them were enslaved, at least until 1888, when Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. Around that same time, heavy European immigration began whitening the state's demographics and eventually, seems to have bleached its self-image entirely. People commonly describe Rio Grande do Sul as "the most European part of Brazil." One of the country's biggest domestic tourist destinations is Gramado, a curious little mountain town a few hours from Porto Alegre, where you can eat fondue and buy designer winter wear in stores built to resemble Alpine chalets.

"Rio Grande do Sul tries to sell this image to Brazil that it's different from the rest of the country, and that this difference is based on the fact that it's European," says Rodrigo de Azevedo Weimer, a historical researcher at the state statistics agency. "To make this claim, it has to deny the presence of its Black residents."

According to the most recent statistics, about 19 percent of the state's residents now self-identify as Black. As in the United States, Black people in Brazil, continue to experience deep institutional and societal racism through overrepresentation in jails and underrepresentation in elected office, higher unemployment and lower pay, fewer educational opportunities and more exposure to physical violence than their white peers.

"When you don't see yourself in your textbooks … there's a chain of cause and effect," Weimer continues. "It affects your self-esteem. [You think], 'Our founding fathers were heroic, but mine weren't. Where are my ancestors? They're not even there.''

One explanation for the practical invisibility of the memorial to the Black Ragamuffins out on the pampas, then, might be that their betrayal and murder stains the honor of the heroes of the Ragamuffin War. Then again, stepping back a bit, there's also the fact that the stories people tell themselves today about those events largely ignore the existence of these Black soldiers altogether.

"We are remembered when it's convenient," says Carlos Teixeira, a lifelong resident of Rio Grande do Sul who abandoned years ago the gaúcho pride of his youth when it became clear that the gaúcho self-image places little value on Black people like him. "Of course, everybody likes Ronaldinho [a legendary soccer player from Porto Alegre] and Daiane Dos Santos [the first Black gymnast to win gold in a World Championships]. But when it's time to talk about history…."

"Rio Grande do Sul tries to sell this image to Brazil that it's different from the rest of the country, and that this difference is based on the fact that it's European," says Rodrigo de Azevedo Weimer, a historical researcher at the state statistics agency. "To make this claim, it has to deny the presence of its Black residents."

One of the unbecoming things I've learned about myself over the past few years living abroad is how quick I am to judge. Why, I mutter, are these people such horrible drivers? Why, I wonder with indignation, do the soccer fans here fight so viciously? Why, I think disapprovingly, do they let their kids stay up so late? When I hear someone repeat the pernicious myth that racism doesn't exist in Brazil—a widespread and glaringly false aspect of the country's self image—I get angry. At least in the United States, I'll tell myself, reasonable people acknowledge that ours is and always has been a racist country.

And so, adrift on the prairie, standing before the small, fading memorial marking the spot of the Black Ragamuffins' betrayal and murder, I find myself wondering whether, if Cerro dos Porongos were an American Civil War site, a much bigger deal would be made of the place. Maybe. Maybe not. It's a difficult comparison to make, and, in hindsight, passing judgment on which country or the other has more tastefully marked the sites of its historic atrocities is really a sad little exercise in self-centeredness. The point of visiting this place was not supposed to be pumping up my star-spangled pride.

Still, that was on my mind as I climbed up the hill to stroll the lemon-scented eucalyptus grove at the summit, listening to the breeze rustling the great, scabby strips of bark dangling from the trunks. I took a few pictures, and then took my leave. I was due back home that night, and had hours on the road ahead of me to to ponder what it meant that such an important place lacks even a simple road sign. As I drove, I thought about how it could be, that in 2018, what happened here still lurks on the very edges of the conversation in Brazil. With the hill receding far behind me and a more magnanimous perspective gradually returning, I also began to ask what––if I could for a moment lay aside the obnoxious American superiority complex that I've discovered lurking within me––I might learn about myself and my home from all of this.

Tearing down our Confederate memorials and renaming our public spaces is now a roiling issue in the American South, and I was wondering how to square that with the different task that I saw present here in the distant south of Brazil: constructing a more complete version of history rather than dismantling a destructive one. In any case, I was assuming that American history had been more completely told, and that our American challenge wasn't so much a matter of uncovering what's been hidden, but rather cutting down to size what's been improperly glorified. I had no idea how wrong I was.

A few weeks later, dawdling when I was supposed to have been writing, Facebook reminded me to tend to the plank in my own eye before removing the speck from Brazil's. It was a short post by a neighborhood group in my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, announcing plans to memorialize an African-American woman who was lynched nearby in 1878. Though I thought I knew Harrisonburg and its history well, I'd never heard the slightest mention of a lynching there.

And so, adrift on the prairie, standing before the small, fading memorial marking the spot of the Black Ragamuffins' betrayal and murder, I find myself wondering whether, if Cerro dos Porongos were an American Civil War site, a much bigger deal would be made of the place. Maybe. Maybe not.

It seems that very few in Harrisonburg today had ever heard the details of this specific story, in fact, until a sociologist named Gianluca De Fazio came to town for a job at James Madison University. De Fazio, who had studied lynching in Georgia, recently led an effort to create an online database with information about the 104 known victims of lynching in Virginia between 1877 and 1927.

One of them was a woman named Charlotte Harris, who, in March 1878, was accused of encouraging a boy to burn down a barn near Harrisonburg. Held under guard while she awaited trial, a mob of disguised men showed up, dragged her down the street and hung her from a red oak tree. Her body was left dangling for several days. A few weeks later, it came out that the accusations against her were false, and no one, of course, was ever held responsible. It was one of the first recorded cases anywhere in the country of a Black woman being lynched, and it drew national newspaper coverage. And then, over the ensuing 140 years, the specifics of the story were completely and utterly forgotten.

"That was absolutely shocking to me," said De Fazio, who has encountered not a single person in town who recognized the name Charlotte Harris or knew any details about a lynching that took place in Harrisonburg. "The more I talked about it, the more people would come to me and say, 'I had no idea.'" From newspaper accounts, some details can be gleaned about Charlotte Harris's murder, but beyond that, next to nothing is known about who she was, where she lived, whether she had children, how old she was when she died—and where, exactly, it happened. Instead, there are a thousand questions and, at least for a comfortably ignorant white person like me, shock that her story has gone untold in my hometown.

Cerro dos Porongos, site of the 1844 massacre of Black soldiers during the Brazilian Civil War. Credit: Andrew Jenner

This comfortable white ignorance and comfortable white shock of mine––revealed and provoked, respectively, by this recent dredging up of the Charlotte Harris lynching––set the stage for yet another sobering revelation about my hometown. While I reacted with surprise, the city's African American community responded with anything but.

"There have always been rumors, innuendo and folklore popularized in Harrisonburg's predominately African-American northeast community that alluded to local racially-motivated atrocities and lynchings of area African Americans after Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era," writes Steven Thomas, an African-American organizer, writer and scholar from Harrisonburg, in an email interview. "Neither I or any African-American resident who I have spoken to about the revelation of the lynching of Charlotte Harris in Harrisonburg in 1878 is in the least bit surprised. Harrisonburg has a history of systematic oppression of its African-American community that goes back to the very founding of the city in 1779."

Similar to Rio Grande do Sul, Thomas sees a direct line connecting historical injustice to the present. There was slavery and then Jim Crow and then the infamous razing of African-American homes and businesses in the 1950s and '60s in the name of urban renewal; now, African Americans in Harrisonburg experience the disproportionate police violence and incarceration rates that are epidemic across the country. That idea I was pondering as I was driving home through the empty Brazilian prairie, that my hometown has reckoned more completely and more honestly with its past than has happened here in southern Brazil? At best: naïve. More likely: complicit.

"The white establishment and power structure in the City of Harrisonburg and in every locality throughout the Shenandoah Valley takes tremendous pride in its Confederate heritage and its history of secessionist politics, practices and positions," Thomas continues. "Not only has the lynching of Charlotte Harris in Harrisonburg been rather obviously hidden and deliberately unreported and ignored by the region's mainstream media outlets, and as an extension, the public education system(s), but this practice of distorting or totally not reporting the complicity that city and county government institutions had (and have) in racial terrorism has been a tactic of control and intimidation of African Americans in the area since the conclusion of the Civil War….."

When Thomas writes of the city's "white establishment and power structure," my first instinct is to imagine it as something other, something in which I play no part. It's something, in fact, that I like to suppose I've confronted from time to time over the years I spent as a journalist there. I don't, after all, take pride in local Confederate heritage. But still, I find myself doubly shocked by this process: first to discover that a lynching happened in Harrisonburg, and then once again to learn that others there are not shocked by this at all. Maybe call it triply shocked: the fact that I'm shocked that others are not shocked probably should tell me I'm alot shockingly cozier with the city's white establishment and power structure than I'd like to believe.

De Fazio, for his part, is not at all shocked that white people and African Americans in Harrisonburg tend to be, respectively, shocked and not shocked to learn what happened to Charlotte Harris there. It's a pattern that repeats itself time and again in the South, where white perpetrators of racial terror returned to normal lives and faced no justice and their descendants, ready "to move on," let bygones become forgotten bygones. Meanwhile, in the African American communities that were the targets of this racial terrorism, the resultant trauma and pain were passed down along generation in oral histories, often kept close and rarely included in the mainstream, institutionalized––that is, white––memory of the past.

Consider this revealing entry for March 7, 1878, in a journal kept by a white shoemaker from near Harrisonburg named Henry Smals. "Thursday morning. Clear and warm," he wrote, noting that one Rev. Mr. Loose had moved, and that a conference of some sort was in session for a second day in Baltimore. He concluded the day's remarks: "Black woman Lynched & Hung for Burning a Barn." In the margin, he added a crude sketch of someone hanging from a gallows.March 8, 1878, Smals wrote, was clear and warm again. Hirem Miller had an auction, and the conference in Baltimore convened for a third day. A conference, an auction, a reverend's change of address, an African American woman hung, and March in like a lamb: things to mention and then let recede from view, in the eyes of a white man.

Thomas and others in town have now begun planning a memorial to Charlotte Harris. They hope to build it in the city's traditional African-American cemetery, founded just after the Civil War and surrounded today by a residential neighborhood. It's less than a half-mile from another, much more prominent city cemetery on one of the main approaches to downtown, where an obelisk commemorates the Confederate soldiers buried around it, and a special service is held each year on Confederate Memorial Day.

I knew when I moved to Brazil that I'd learn a million things, but I had no idea what I'd discover about my small Virginia hometown. I knew that so much here would be so different, but once again, I had no idea how much would be so eerily the same. Sometimes, these are simple, matters of landscape: in Rio Grande do Sul, the sinking sun on a fall afternoon casts the same mournful light on the butchered remnants of a just-harvested soybean field as it does in the Shenandoah Valley. In other instances, this eerie sameness is of the complicated, wrenching kind: here as well as there, memory is selective, history is intentionally incomplete and unjust and exerts a powerful sway on the present. The comfortable collectively agree to ignore violent truths and remain oblivious to long-festering wounds, which time alone does not heal.

Andrew Jenner

Andrew Jenner is a writer from Harrisonburg, Va. After three years in Brazil, he and his family are moving back home to the Shenandoah Valley this summer. He has freelanced for a decade and has written about all sorts of things for publications like The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Roads and Kingdoms, Discover, and many others.