Untold Stories in Black History : Ota Benga

Ota_Benga_at_Bronx_Zoo
1906 posed photograph of Ota Benga, Author unknown.

There are some unread books still on my book shelves, and whenever I have time, I randomly choose one. Non-fiction works are my choice as I rather fill my mind with facts than fiction.

Recently I started reading William Bridges’ “Gathering of Animals: An Unconventional History of the New York Zoological Society”. The author served as the curator of publications for the New York Zoological Society from 1935 to 1966.  It was a very interesting read, particularly the little known but controversial story of the man known as Ota Benga and his voyage from his village in Africa to being on “on display” in at the New York Zoological Society.

Better known as “the Bronx Zoo”, the New York Zoological Society opened in 1899. If you ever enter through the elaborate Paul J. Rainey Memorial Gateway on Pelham Parkway, you will notice the inscription over the pedestrian entrance.

NYZP

Growing up in the Bronx, the Zoo was one of those magical places. My family were frequent visitors and I carried the tradition on with my own children. For several years we were members, and for two years made weekly trips during the Spring and Summer seasons.

I curled up with the book and began to read the Zoo’s history, with great fondness, but one thing stood out, and in celebrating Black history, it is a must share.

Ota Benga, an African pygmy from the Congo, was bought to the Zoo in 1906. He was about 23 years old, stood 4’11, weighed just a little over 100 lbs and had sharp pointed teeth. They were filed as a ritual decoration during his youth.

His first trip to the States was in 1904, when Samuel Philips Verner, an American businessman, traveled to Africa in order to bring pygmies to be part of “living displays” for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Verner returned the pygmies to Africa, however, Ota Benga’s tribe was at war with some cannibalistic and human sacrificing tribes. He had lost his family. He and Verner had become friends, and he asked Verner to return him to America. Verner complied with Ota Benga’s wishes and in the late Summer of 1906, Verner returned with Ota Benga and a young chimpanzee. He reached out to director of the Zoo, Dr. William Temple Hornaday, with regards to the chimpanzee, and somehow, Ota Benga, became part of the deal.

It is reported that Ota Benga was allowed to roam the grounds, and even help some of the animal keepers. He spent much of his time caring for Verner’s chimpanzee, and an orangutan.

In September, 1906, the chimpanzee, the orangutan and Ota Benga were on exhibit at the Monkey House. Some accounts used the word “employed”, yet no records reflect payment. An informational label with regards to Ota Benga was hung in front of the display and a sign that read “Exhibited each afternoon during September.”

Being particularly skilled with a bow and arrow, a target was set up for Ota Benga. It attracted thousands of visitors.

Ota Benga only communicated in the Baluba language, which Verner had learned. When Verner returned to his home in North Carolina, Ota Benga was left unable to communicate with others.

The New York Times had done a profile of him, which lead to a bit of an uproar. By the end of the month he was relocated to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. In 1910, he was sent to the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg. After some time working as a laborer at the school, he quit and was employed at a tobacco factory and performed other odd jobs. In 1916, with a gun belonging to a woman whom he lived with, he committed suicide. He was in his early 30’s.

I shared the reading with my children, ages 17 and 15. With a puzzled look, they both asked “Why isn’t there anything to memorialize him?” As I searched for answers, I found an interesting and comprehensive article written by Mitch Keller and published by The New York Times on August 6, 2006.

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/nyregion/thecity/06zoo.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

As a continued supporter of the Bronx Zoo, I’d like to see The Zoo recognize and memorialize this fallen figure in our flawed but true history. There are plenty of institutions with checkered pasts, and in recognition of it, we move forward.  Ota Benga, at least to this Bronxite, deserves his place in our local history.

As we celebrate Black history month, please remember Ota Benga,and  share his story with others.