MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
One hundred years ago today, the Bronx Zoo in New York unveiled a new exhibit that would attract thousands of visitors to come and marvel. Inside a cage in the Monkey House, there was a man named Ota Benga. He was 22, a member of the Batwa people, pygmies who lived in what was then the Belgian Congo.
To understand how he ended up in the zoo, you have to go back a few years to his encounter with an American explorer and missionary who had been hired by the 1904 World's Fair.
Producer Joe Richman of Radio Diaries put together the story for us.
Ms. CARRIE ALLEN MCCRAY (Friend of Ota Benga): My name is Carrie Allen McCray. I'm 92 years old. And I knew Ota Benga when I was a very little girl. Ota was brought over here by Samuel Phillips Verner. He was a missionary in the Congo.
Mr. PHILLIPS VERNER BRADFORD (Grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner): My name is Phillips Verner Bradford. My grandfather brought Ota Benga, along with some other African natives to this country in 1904. He was hired as an agent to bring African pygmies to the St. Louis Exposition, not to visit the exhibition but to be an exhibition.
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Unidentified Man #1: Dear Mr. Verner, you are to secure the voluntary attendance at the Exposition of 12 pygmies by May 1, 1904. Delays by shipwreck or other catastrophe accepted. Yours with respect, W. J. McGee, Department of Anthropology, St. Louis Exposition.
Mr. BRADFORD: Well, when he got to Africa, my grandfather met with a tribe known as the Baschilele. And he found that they had a pygmy in a cage as a captive and my grandfather negotiated to purchase this pygmy, Ota Benga, for I think it's several bags of salt and a spool of brass wire.
Unidentified Man #2: St. Louis Post Dispatch, June 26, 1904. From the secluded forests of the Congo region in equatorial Africa, an American clergyman, the Reverend Samuel P. Verner, is bringing to the World's Fair a company of African pygmies, the smallest members of the human race.
Now, for the first time they will set foot on the Western hemisphere. Here are some queer facts about the African pygmies. The average height of the men is that of a 12-year-old white boy. They're extremely shy.
Ms. MCCRAY: You know, that was a big scene, the 1904 World's Fair. For the pygmies they had built their huts, which are coned shaped, so you would see a little village set up just like they lived in the forest.
Unidentified Man #2: Pygmy has been known to eat 60 bananas in one meal and then ask for more. If caught they are said to make excellent servants.
Mr. BRADFORD: After that exhibit in early 1905, my grandfather, he returned to Africa to return the pygmies back to their home. Ota Benga however, he did not fit in with the Batwa tribe where the other pygmies were from and his own tribe had been completely annihilated by the genocide that had been going on. So Ota Benga was completely alone and got on the boat back with Verner and come to New York in summer of 1906.
At that time, Mr. Hornaday, the esteemed director of the Bronx Zoo - and I mean he was esteemed, he was considered one of the top zoo creators in the world -came down to talk about utilizing Ota Benga in the zoo, perhaps helping him clean the cages, wash the elephants down, that sort of thing. He'd be familiar with elephants. He knew the African animals quite well.
And as people saw Ota Benga cleaning the cages, the zoo then discovered that people were coming not so much to see the animals but to watch Ota Benga because he was scantily dressed and he was performing with these animals. And at one point Mr. Hornaday decided why not create an exhibition.
Unidentified Man #3: New York Times, September 10, 1906. Several thousand persons took the subway, the elevated and the surface cars to the New York Zoological Park in the Bronx yesterday and there watched Ota Benga, the bushman, who has been put by the management on exhibition there in the monkey cage.
The bushman didn't seem to mind it and there could be no doubt that to the majority, the joint man and monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in the Bronx Park. Over and over again the crowd laughed at him. If he wonders why, he does not show it.
Mr. BRADFORD: There's a report that as many as 40,000 people a day went up to the zoo just to see Ota Benga. You have to understand the times a little bit. This was a time when the theory of evolution was still being hotly debated. It wasn't as broadly accepted, even in the scientific community, as it is today.
And people were probably led to believe by the nature of the exhibition that this was a missing link. This was bridge between the animals and the humans that had never been seen before.
Ms. MCCRAY: When you think of it today, it's pretty awful and there were people back there then that thought it was pretty awful. My mother's first husband was chairman of the Black Baptists Education Society. And he and a number of other ministers protested that no human being should be treated like this.
Unidentified Man #4: New York Times, September 29, 1906. Ota Benga has left the New York Zoological Park in the Bronx and been installed in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, Brooklyn. There it is hoped that by association with the colored children and their instructors, the pygmy may be civilized so that when he goes back home he will be able to teach his people.
Mr. BRADFORD: The ministers did succeed in getting him out of the zoo and finally he was sent down to Lynchburg, Virginia, and it is there that the community tried to assist him in becoming a regular, normal American citizen.
Ms. MCCRAY: When he was brought down to Lynchburg, he lived in my family's home. I was only two and a half, but my brother, Hunter, knew him well. Ota taught him how to make fishing rods. He taught him how to fish. And he would take them out in the woods, build a fire and he would tell them stories.
Ota had a little room in the house, which was so different from his forest home, so often he would sleep out in the woods. He certainly had to wear the clothes that we wore. He had to sit in a dining room table. We always ate dinner in the dining room, which was a big dining room. And I'm not sure he was happy with that, sitting at this stiff dining room with the beautiful chairs and whatnot. He didn't want to accept all of this. I think he wanted to be in his woods.
Mr. BRADFORD: As good as the intentions of the community in Lynchburg was and as friendly and as accommodating as they could be, Ota Benga became despondent. And one day he decided to build a little bonfire around the edges of the town and took off his clothes and threw them in the fire. And he borrowed a gun from one of his host families and shot himself on the vernal equinox of 1916.
He said that he wanted to send his soul back to Africa. I don't think my grandfather understood the consequences fully when he made the decision to bring Ota Benga to the United States. I don't think Hornaday understood the consequences of his exhibition at the zoo. He thought he was doing a good thing.
Ms. MCCRAY: If you read some of the old history books or go way back to even ancient history and see what man does to man, you cringe. This whole experience, to put him in a cage with an ape, people can hardly believe that this happened. But it did.
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SIEGEL: 92-year-old Carrie Allen McCray, who knew Ota Benga as a little girl. We also heard from Phillips Verner Bradford, grandson of the explorer who brought Ota Benga to America. The story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. The editors were Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. For photos of Ota Benga, you can visit our Web site, NPR.org.