Just as the late Stephen Jay Gould updated Charles Darwin by arguing that humans evolved through fits and starts—“punctuated equilibrium”—social progress also is less steady than we would like. Even amid a positive trajectory, there are breakthroughs, plateaus, and setbacks. Sometimes, what seems like a step back actually helps propel society forward. The short unhappy life of Ota Benga—the human being exhibited in the Bronx Zoo—demonstrates how one big example of racist ugliness may have resulted in at least one small step toward racial progress.
Although the true origins of this sad story begins with the specious theories of superiority whites developed centuries ago, Benga’s tale begins in the early 1900s, in the Belgian-controlled Congo Free State. His life in his community ended when King Leopold’s Force Publique invaded his world, murdering his wife and two children, then selling him as a slave to the Baschilele tribe. This all too familiar outrage took a bizarre turn when an American anthropologist, Samuel Philips Verner, purchased him for five dollars’ worth of cloth and salt. This woefully misguided missionary then brought Benga along with eight other young Africans to star in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Benga’s slight build, dark skin, and artificially sharpened teeth—from a ritual called chipping—fit many Americans’ racist stereotype of the African savage. As Pamela Newkirk notes in her award-winning book, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, now out in paperback, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch greeted the “African Pygmies for the World’s Fair” on June 26, 1904. Benga and his troupe won the gold medal for entertaining the crowds with their dances and other tribal rituals.
Pre-media-age often flocked to fairs, carnivals, and circuses to see curiosities. Two years after, Benga returned with Verner to Africa but, Verner claimed, then insisted on returning to America, and the Bronx Zoo debacle began. This time, Benga was exhibited in a cage with animals, first a chimpanzee, then an orangutan.
Simply writing those words makes the stomach churn. The layers of racism, the depths of dehumanization, that spawned such an act proved that four decades after the Civil War freed the slaves, Americans were not yet liberated from America’s original sin. Millions in this nation supposedly dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were frequently deprived of life, robbed of liberty, blocked from happiness merely because of their skin color. The collaboration of top scientists, a leading cultural institution, and masses in New York City, the purported capital of enlightened America, proves how systemic the sin was. These blue rednecks, if you will, debunk many Northerners’ tendency self-image as the noble heroes ultimately defeating Southern whites’ savagery.
“Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes,” The New York Times headlined on Sept. 9, 1906. The subhead reported: “Some Laugh at his Antics, But Many are Not Pleased.” “Something about it that I don’t like,” one “white man” admitted. Black ministers defined what there was not to like. The Reverend James H. Gordon lamented: “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”
The Times’ editors, among others, disagreed with Gordon. With as many as 40,000 crowding the zoo in one day to see Benga, the paper editorialized: “Not feeling particularly vehement excitement ourselves over the exhibition of an African ‘pigmy’ in the Primate House of the Zoological Park, we do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter. Still, the show is not exactly a pleasant one, and we do wonder that the Director did not foresee and avoid the scoldings now aimed in his direction.” The editorial also declared, “As for Benga himself, he is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in his country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering.” Claiming that “Pygmies are very low in the human scale,” America’s newspaper of record concluded: “The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education of books is now far out of date.”
Ultimately, however, the cruelty of this act, its utter inhumanity, stirred the consciences of the normally passive, those go-along get along citizens whose self-involvement often enables communal sins. The backlash began in the black community, then spread. The Reverend Gordon turned to a leading African-American attorney, Wilford H. Smith, and they received backing from John Henry E. Millholland, a wealthy white civil rights activist. The city controller visited. Benga himself became unruly — skirmishing with the visiting hordes. A Louisiana newspaper delightedly denounced this “Northern Outrage,” writing: “Yes, in the sacred city of New York… almost daily mobs find exciting sport in chasing negroes through the streets without much being said about it.” Finally declaring it “utterly impossible to control him,” the utterly unapologetic director of the Zoological Society, William Temple Hornaday, released Benga. This shameful behavior had shamed the racists.
Feeding the backlash was the fact that at that time, a few miles from the Bronx Zoo, the intellectual revolution America needed for a Civil Rights revolution to succeed was stirring. Franz Boas, a Jewish refugee from Germany’s anti-Semitism, was among the scientific pioneers helping Americans rethink their fundamental assumptions about race and culture. Boas taught that race was a cultural construct not a biological fact. Intellectuals have no monopoly on virtue—despite his being correct, other academics resisted his findings—and held back his career—for years. Eventually, this revolutionary insight would become a common understanding that the great significance imputed to these differences said more about white assumptions of superiority than any black deficiencies.
Ota Benga was freed. But as with too many victims of racism, the scars of the hatred still shackled his soul. Initially, Gordon placed him in the Howard Coloured Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn—a 23-year-old infantilized, housed with kids. By 1910, Benga was living at the all-black Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College, in Virginia, where he enjoyed a seemingly bucolic existence. He taught neighboring boys how to hunt, how to sing his tribal songs, how to make fires. He told exciting tales about the elephants back home which were “big, very big.”
On March 19, 1916, Otto Bingo, as he was now known, danced by the fire, more frenzied than usual, more melancholy than usual. A few hours later, he pulled out a gun he had secured and shot himself in the heart.
Thus ends another racial Rashomon, another opportunity to debate whether the proverbial American racial glass is half empty or half full—and if America can ever cure itself of its racist birth defect. True, this heartrending story demonstrates the ongoing blight of American racism. But ultimately, Boas's truths prevailed. Today, the Bronx Zoo’s spokesperson regrets this “mistake” from “a moment in time,” this blot on that fine institution’s history. Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans lament the greater blot of racism on our country’s history. And today, we all must dedicate ourselves to purging any vestiges of racism still lingering within our society, within our souls. We cannot rewrite history but we can—and must—do all we can to correct it.