In 1906, the Bronx Zoo Put a Black Man on Display in the Primates' House
When the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) opened in September 1906, people visiting the Primates’ House encountered a startling sight. There, amid the cages full of exotic animals, they found a human: Ota Benga, a member of the Mbuti pygmy tribe from what was then known as the Congo Free State. Though he was just 23 years old, this was not the first time Benga had been publicly displayed as a curiosity.
Benga was brought to America by explorer and missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, who first exhibited him at the notorious “human zoos” of the 1904 World’s Fair. His life before the fair is largely a mystery—as Pamela Newkirk writes in Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, “Given the various conflicting accounts offered by Verner as to how he acquired Benga, the true story will probably never be known.”
The Man With a Five-Cent Smile
A 1904 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article claimed a tribe had held Benga captive as a slave until Verner purchased him at a slave market. A 1916 New York Times article said Verner met Benga at a Belgian Army station, where soldiers had saved Benga from a cannibalistic tribe. And there were more variations in-between. Beyond that, it’s also thought that Benga had a wife and two children, who were killed either by Belgian forces looking for ivory or a hostile tribe.
In 1904, Verner brought Benga to the U.S., where he displayed him at the St. Louis World Fair (officially called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition). The main draw was his sharpened teeth, which he showed for five cents. Though newspapers at the time said they were shaped to facilitate cannibalism, tooth sharpening was a common form of body modification within Benga’s tribe, and did not indicate someone who noshed on human flesh.
After the fair, Benga returned to Africa with Verner, then later accompanied the missionary back to the United States. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s African American Lives, “Otabenga married a second wife, a Batwa woman who died from snakebite soon afterward. The Batwa blamed Otabenga for her death and shunned him. That decision appears to have strengthened his relationship with Verner.” Though again, Newkirk points out that Verner gave differing versions of events over the years.
By the time Verner brought Benga to New York City, the explorer was broke. Eventually, he contacted William Temple Hornaday, the then-director of what is now the Bronx Zoo, who agreed to temporarily loan Benga an apartment on the grounds. Whether Hornaday had ulterior motives from the start is unclear, but before long, he was displaying Benga as another exhibit.
"Is that a man?"
According to New York Magazine, in his first few weeks, Benga wandered around the grounds of the zoo freely. But soon, Hornaday had his zookeepers urge Benga to play with the orangutan in its enclosure. Crowds gathered to watch. Next, the zookeepers convinced Benga to use his bow and arrow to shoot targets, along with the occasional squirrel or rat. They also scattered some stray bones around the enclosure to suggest the idea of Benga being a savage. Finally, they cajoled Benga into rushing the bars of the cage and baring his whittled teeth at the patrons. Kids were terrified. Some adults were, too—though more of them were just plain curious about Benga. “Is that a man?” one visitor asked.
Hornaday posted a sign in the Primates’ House listing Benga’s height and weight—4 feet, 11 inches tall and 103 pounds—and how he had ended up at the zoo. “Exhibited each afternoon during September,” it read. If Hornaday’s attitude toward his new "acquisition" needed further elaboration, it was summed up in the tone of an article he wrote for the zoological society’s bulletin:
"Ota Benga is a well-developed little man, with a good head, bright eyes, and a pleasing countenance. He is not hairy, and is not covered by the ‘downy fell’ described by some explorers ... He is happiest when at work, making something with his hands."
Following a piece in the New York Times, word of the exhibit spread. "We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people," the Times quoted Reverend Dr. R. S. MacArthur as saying, "and then we bring one here to brutalize him." In an editorial, the Times conceded that “the show is not exactly a pleasant one,” but that Benga "is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in this country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering" and concluded that the best place for him was likely the forests of his homeland.
“He Refuses To Be Looked At”
Soon, a group of Black clergymen was leading protests around the city. After a threat of legal action, Benga was let out of the cage, and once again allowed to roam the grounds of the zoo. But by then, he was a celebrity. The zoo was attracting up to 40,000 visitors a day, many of whom followed Benga wherever he went, jeering and laughing at him. Benga spoke little English, so couldn’t express his frustration. Instead he lashed out, wounding a visitor with his bow and arrow and threatening a zookeeper with a knife.
Calls for Benga’s freedom increased. Hornaday wrote to Verner, suggesting he come take him away or place him in an orphanage. Verner, who had gone south in search of work, wrote back and suggested giving Benga “a dose of some sedative” temper his outbursts. In another letter, along with a message to Benga, Verner promised to come get the young man, and instructed Hornaday to send him to North Carolina.
On September 28, 1906, Benga left the zoo and was taken in by the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. A 1907 newspaper article noted, “Many persons who visit the orphanage to get a glimpse of Ota wrestling with dog, cat, cow, and other preliminaries of the English language are disappointed. He refuses to be looked at since his experience in the monkey cages.” Benga moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, and went on to learn some English and found work at a tobacco factory, alongside other odd jobs, but grew depressed and homesick. In 1916, he died by suicide.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Bronx Zoo, had long been under pressure to acknowledge the issues surrounding Benga’s display. On July 29, 2020, in the wake of the U.S.’s recent, ongoing reckoning with systemic racism, the organization published a statement from WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper condemning and apologizing for how the institution treated Benga. As part of the statement, the organization revealed that it had made all of its archival material related to Benga available to the public.