Ota Benga stood 4 feet 11 inches and weighed only 103lbs. He was a Congolese pygmy who was brought to the United States and caged with an orangutan at the New York Zoological Gardens—now known as the Bronx Zoo. He was used as an attraction which brought nearly 40,000 New York residents daily to gawk at the “savage” from Africa caged with monkeys. And while this sounds like something that occurred in the distant past—even, perhaps, during slavery—this occurred in 1904 in the “progressive” city of New York.
The New York Times featured a headline, “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes.” The Zoo billed Ota as “an exotic beast.” And for a mere twenty-five cents fee for admission, whites from all around New York filled the zoo to see the spectacle.
Even more disturbing were the “scientists” who billed Ota as the “missing link” that connected our species to the ape. Ota was used by scientist to contribute to the many racially stained pseudo-sciences that depict the inferiority of blacks. Many of those untruths endure to this day.
It wasn’t until black clergymen became involved that the exhibit was shut down. These preachers, disgusted by the blatant racism, engaged in a campaign that forced the zoo to close the exhibit and to release Ota.
Upon his release, Ota Benga was placed in an orphanage and ultimately placed in a home because he had no family to return to in the Conga. They had either been killed or fled. Although he attempted to adjust to his new life by going to school and learning English, Ota had been broken. In 1916, Ota shot himself in the heart. After taking his own life, he was buried in an unmarked grave in New York.
Ota Benga was a human being treated by America as a side-show. This was not during a time when Americans “legally” viewed blacks as cattle and property. This was many years after slavery. This was after the Emancipation and after the Civil War. Yet, the savagery of American culture allowed this beautiful soul—a human being—to be caged with animals and put on display for the enjoyment and entertainment of white America. All of this in the “liberal” bastion of New York City.