On Tuesday, it will be exactly 102 years ago from March 20, 1916 when Ota Benga died. But it didn’t happen in his homeland. Instead, it happened in Virginia after he had been kidnapped from Africa and put on display in a monkey cage at a zoo in the U.S.
Before explaining the details of Mr. Benga having been caged, humiliated, and dehumanized in a zoo, I must point out that this kind of racist depravity wasn’t new. It was a long-term and widespread “white thing.”
As documented by BBC News, “Over four centuries from the first voyages of (so-called) discovery, European societies developed an appetite for exhibiting exotic human ‘specimens’ shipped back to Paris, London, or Berlin (as well as Amsterdam, Antwerp, Barcelona, Hamburg, Marseilles, Milan, Warsaw, and even The Vatican) for the interest and delectation of the crowd....” And the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, which seven years ago quasi-apologized for Europeans by hosting a presentation called “Inventing The Savage,” disclosed that nearly 1.5 billion persons had visited “human zoos.” This savage lust to dehumanize and to profit wasn’t limited to Europe. “Human zoos” also existed in America, namely Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York City, and St. Louis.
In 1906 during the slaughter of Mr. Benga’s Congolese village while he was away hunting, Belgian soldiers murdered his wife and children. Shortly afterward, the 23-year-old Mr. Benga was kidnapped and sold for “a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth” to South Carolina Christian missionary and anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner who transported Mr. Benga to New York City’s American Museum of Natural History to be put on display.
Justifiably outraged by such inhuman disrespect, Mr. Benga became “difficult to control.” During one incident, “it took three men to get him back into the (museum’s) Monkey House” from which he had escaped. And when they were trying to return him to the cage inside that Monkey House, he decided to “kick and fight his way free... (and even) threatened them with a knife.” Another time, he “threw a chair” at a museum official, “nearly hitting her in the head.” Described as “unmanageable” and “utterly impossible to control,” he was transferred to the Bronx Zoo on Sept. 8, 1906 and imprisoned in another “Monkey House,” this time with a monkey, an orangutan, a parrot, and a guinea pig. He was forced to walk barefoot with bones strewn about in the cage.
Not only was the zoo unimaginably racist for caging a human being, so was the American public. On just one day, “more than 40,000 whites” in groups of approximately “500 at a time” were “howling, jeering, and yelling” at Mr. Benga. “Some of them poked him in the ribs, (while) others tripped him up, (and) all laughed at him.” They also “poked him with lighted cigars.” Even the racist American media joined in. The Evening Post wrote, “(He) plays (with the beasts) as though one of them, rolling around the floor of the cages in wild wrestling matches and chattering to them in his own guttural tongue, which they seem to understand.” And the New York Times reported he “is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in his country, and it is absurd to make a moan over the ‘imagined humiliation and degradation’ he is (supposedly) suffering.”
When the New York Times wrote about someone making a “moan” regarding Mr. Benga’s horrifically inhumane plight, it was referring to the Rev. James H. Gordon, head of the Colored Ministers Conference and Superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Long Island. Rev. Gordon, along with the Rev. Matthew Gilbert of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church who served as spokesperson for the Ministers Union of Charlotte, N.C., raised holy hell demanding the release of Mr. Benga. The union described such malicious mistreatment by writing “We regard the (white) actors… in this most reprehensible conduct as offering an unpardonable insult to humanity….”
Also, Wilford H. Smith, Esquire, the first Black attorney to win a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, joined in to express his righteous indignation. But the zoo’s founding director, William Temple Hornady, refused to relent, stating, “The display is in keeping with the practice of ‘human exhibitions’ of Africans in Europe (and America).” Rev. Gordon then appealed to Mayor George McClellan. Unfortunately, the mayor refused to even meet.
However, due to mounting pressure from the Black clergy, the Black lawyer, and others, including some civilized whites, the zoo ultimately caved in and released Mr. Benga on Sept. 28, 1906, twenty days after he was first caged at the zoo. Thanks to Rev. Gordon, Mr. Benga was taken to the colored asylum, which served as a residential facility, hospital, and school.
After about three and a half respectful, rewarding, and productive years there with the good reverend, Mr. Benga was offered and accepted in Jan. 1910 a decent job in Lynchburg, Va. While in Lynchburg, he became a close friend of poet Anne Spencer who took him to meet W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington on separate occasions.
As an aside, and I mean no disrespect to anyone, but here’s an indisputable anthropological fact: If you look closely at a monkey (or any other simian), you will notice that it has straight hair — not thick hair. And if you shave it, you will notice that its skin is white — not black — and its lips are thin — not full. Class dismissed. Now back to Mr. Benga.
Six years after arriving in Lynchburg, meeting good people, and living a dignified life, Mr. Benga was homesick. In fact, he had always been homesick, ever since he was kidnapped. And each day away from Africa, he grew more and more depressed. And each day that he thought about the unbearable humiliation of having been caged like an animal, he grew more and more depressed.
And on the early afternoon of March 20, 1916, the 32-year-old Mr. Benga built a ceremonial fire and sang “I believe I’ll go home. Lordy, won’t you help me?” (which he had learned from one of the ministers). After that, he used a borrowed gun to shoot himself in the heart. Then he went home.