The African Pigmy, “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
The head of the zoo saw nothing wrong: after all, the zoological society was for it. But the secretary of the zoological society was a scientific racist: none other than Madison Grant.
The New York Times did not miss Grant’s intended message:
… 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.
Black Christian ministers in New York saw it differently:
Our race … is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.
The New York Times did not see what the big deal was:
As for Benga himself, he is probably enjoying himself … it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering. The pygmies are … very low in the human scale… The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.
This was not Benga’s first appearance in America. He was at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair as “the only genuine African cannibal in America” (he was no cannibal). He appeared along with Geronimo and others to represent the different races of mankind. Geronimo gave him an arrowhead.
Earlier in 1906 Benga was at the Natural History Museum in New York dressed in a duck suit to amuse visitors. The museum kicked him out after he nearly killed Florence Guggenheim by throwing a chair. They still have a cast of him.
After the chair thing Samuel Verner, the African explorer who brought him to America, took him to the Bronx Zoo. They bought Verner’s chimpanzees and took Benga too.
The zoo let Benga help the zookeepers and had him sleep in the Monkey House. He took care of Verner’s last living chimpanzee and played with the orangutan. Soon he found himself playing with the orangutan in a locked cage!
Black ministers protested and in time the zoo unlocked his cage, but then people followed him, poked him, tripped him, laughed at him. When he made a bow and arrow to defend himself, the zoo threw him out.
The ministers sent him to one of their orphanages and then onto Virginia where he was taught English by Anne Spencer, a black poet. Through her he met Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. He went to school but soon dropped out to work at a tobacco factory.
He wanted to go home but had no money. In 1916 he shot himself in the heart and died.