Looking Back at the Strange Case of Ota Benga A century ago, a Belgian Congo pygmy named Ota Benga was displayed in the Bronx Zoo's monkey cage, an exhibition that outraged black Americans. Producer Joe Richman has this profile.

Looking Back at the Strange Case of Ota Benga

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During the 19th century, U.S. fairs and museums featured exotic animals and human beings. One of the last humans to be exhibited was Ota Benga, a pygmy from the Belgian Congo. In the fall of 1906, thousands of visitors lined up outside the monkey cage at the Bronx Zoo to see him.

Producer Joe Richman has the story.

Ms. CARRIE ELLEN MCCRAY: My name is Carrie Ellen McCray(ph). 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 Philips 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.

(Soundbite of typewriter)

JOE RICHMAN: Dear Mr. Verner, you are to secure the voluntary attendance at the exposition of 12 pygmies by May 1st, 1904. Delays by shipwreck or other catastrophe accepted. Yours with respect, WJ McGee, Department of Anthology, St. Louis Exposition.

Mr. BRADFORD: Well, when he got to Africa, my grandfather met with a tribe known as the Baschelel(ph) 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 #1: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 26, 1904. From the secluded forest 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 man is that of 12-year-old white boy. They are extremely shy. Their abnormal…

Ms. MCCRAY: You know, that was a big thing in the 1904 World's Fair. For the pygmies, they had built their huts, which are cone-shaped, so you would see a little village set up just like they lived in the forest.

Unidentified Man #1: 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 came to New York in summer of 1906. At that time, a 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 #1: New York Times, Sept. 10th, 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 seemed 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 400,000 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 a bridge between the animals and the humans that had never been seen before.

(Soundbite of music)

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 Baptist Education Society, and he and a number of other ministers protested that no human being should be treated like this.

Unidentified Man #1: New York Times, Sept. 29th, 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 him out in the woods, build a fire and he would tell them stories.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MCCRAY: 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 at 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 had 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRADFORD: 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.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: When she was a little girl, 92-year-old Carrie Ellen McCray knew Ota Benga. We also heard from Phillips Verner Bradford, grandson of the explorer who brought Ota Benga to America.

Our story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Dairies. Our editors were Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. You can see photos of Ota Benga at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We'll be back tomorrow. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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