Ota Benga: The Man Who Was On Display at the Bronx Zoo

Via Wildlife Conservation Society / Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy, posed at the Bronx Zoo in 1906.

Ota Benga posing at The Bronx Zoo in 1906 / Image Credit Wildlife Conservation Society

It’s hard to believe that almost 109 years ago, a Congolese pygmy man was put on display at the Bronx Zoo in the Monkey House.

Ota Benga was brought over to the United States by the an anthropologist of the name Samuel Phillips Verner who had been hired to bring back pygmies for the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis.

2 years later, after the pygmies were returned to Africa, Benga asked to come back to the States.

After a few stops, Ota Benga was eventually taken up to The Bronx Zoo but his stay didn’t last long. By the accounts of the zoo back then, Benga was free to roam and spent a lot of time in the Monkey House.

He was eventually encouraged to get comfortable in one of the cages and before anyone knew, a sign was up stating, “Exhibited each afternoon in September.”

After several weeks and outrage by the African American community, Ota Benga was no longer in his cage but his story and stay didn’t end there as the New York Times wrote:

“The public, at any rate, had not yet had its fill of Ota Benga, whose name was now a household one. Though no longer on official display, the African was still living at the zoo and spending time with his primate friends in the Monkey House. On Sunday, Sept. 16, 40,000 people went to the zoo, and everywhere Ota Benga went that day, The Times reported, the crowds pursued him, “howling, jeering and yelling.”

The newspaper reported, “Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.”

It was a sign of the times in America. The Emancipation Proclamation was barely half a century old which had freed the enslaved African Americans.

Sadly, New York City’s mayor at the time, George McClellan, along with the director of the zoo, William Temple Hornaday, didn’t see anything wrong with what had transpired.
Listen to NPR’s story on Ota Benga:

This story is especially important during Black History Month but also each and everyday it should be a reminder that we are all humans regardless of our differences.

It was definitely not one of our borough’s proudest moments in history but from our history we must learn and never forget.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.