Posts Tagged ‘Congolese Pygmy’

The Bronx Zoo’s deplorable human exhibit

January 7, 2009

In September 1906, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga—who had been living in the Museum of Natural History after a stint at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair—was moved into the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House. Given a bow and arrow, he was free to come and go on zoo grounds.

He wasn’t an employee, however, but an exhibit—one that was met with a fair amount of outrage. African-American leaders protested immediately. And though crowds came to laugh and jeer at Ota Benga, many visitors also found the situation shameful.


Ota Benga, supposedly at the Bronx Zoo

The New York Times said this about zoo-goers on September 9, 1906: “Even those who laughed the most turned away with an expression on their faces such as one sees after a play with a sad ending or a book in which the hero or heroine is poorly rewarded. ‘Something about it that I don’t like’ was the way one man put it.”

bronxzoo1910 The Bronx Zoo entrance in 1910, 11 years after the zoo opened 

Within a few weeks, the zoo took Ota Benga off display, and by the end of the month he came under the guardianship of an African-American clergyman who moved him to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. 

The zoo’s human exhibit was over; Ota Benga met his end a decade later. In 1910 he relocated to a Baptist seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he later found work at a tobacco factory. In 1916, he shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.