Ota Benga was a Congolese Pygmy who lived a portion of his life in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo.
The year was 1906, and New Yorkers flocked to see, for the first time in any American zoo, a human being displayed in a cage.
The sign posted on his enclosure read “The African Pygmy, ‘Ota Benga.” Age 23 years. Height 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September”
On September 10, 1906 the story of Ota Benga appeared on the cover of the New York Times. The article reported that “the pygmy was not much taller than the orangutan, and one had a good opportunity to study their points of resemblance. Their heads are much alike, and both grin in the same way when pleased.”
The exhibit was immensely popular, with Sundays often attracting over 40,000 visitors. It was also incredibly controversial. African-American newspapers around the nation carried editorials strongly opposing Benga’s treatment. Dr. R.S. MacArthur, the spokesperson for a delegation of black churches, petitioned the New York City mayor for his release.
Under threat of legal action, the Zoo’s director Dr. William Hornaday had Ota Benga leave his cage and circulate around the zoo, but he returned to the monkey house to sleep.
African-American clergyman James H. Gordon continued to protest to zoo officials, “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”
The zoo finally removed Benga from the grounds. Toward the end of 1906, Benga was released into Reverend Gordon’s custody. Gordon placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage which he supervised.
As the unwelcome press attention continued, in January 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga’s relocation to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived with the McCray family. He arranged for Benga’s teeth to be capped and for him to dress in American-style clothes so that he could be part of local society. Tutored by Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer, Benga could improve his English, and he began to attend elementary school at the Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg.
Once he felt his English had improved sufficiently, Benga discontinued his formal education and began working at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. Despite his small size, he proved a valuable employee. Nicknamed “Bingo”, he often told his life story in exchange for sandwiches and root beer.
In 1914, when World War I broke out, Benga became depressed as his hopes for a return to the Congo faded. On March 20, 1916, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.
Contributed by Dina Sharif