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Zoo Man: The Ota Benga Spectacle in Racism

Updated on June 11, 2015
In the Zoo
In the Zoo
Ota (middle) in the Congo
Ota (middle) in the Congo
From an evolutionary publication
From an evolutionary publication

The early 1900's is filled with seemingly nonsensical notions. The most crazy one was a sort of ignorant, naïve, form of racism that some anthropologists had.These scientific men meant well and firmly believed in the weird science of the evolution of mankind. At some point in 1895, the esteemed publication, National Geographic Society (that still publishes today) hired Samuel Verner, a missionary and quasi-anthropologist, to go find black men in the Congo for a enthographic show in the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Verner took his time and acquired several specimens, which include Ota Benga. The show also included specimens from Indians, Filipino, Japanese.

But, unlike the others, Ota was placed, like an animal, in a cage with other chimps since he was a pygmy. He was only 4 ft. 11 in. He was quite the popular exhibit with as many as 500 people gawking at this oddity that was "out of this world". Anthropologists even said that maybe Ota was the "missing link" between ape and mankind in evolution based on the sub-human intelligence. While in the zoo, he attended his parrot, shot a bow and arrow, and wore bare essentials for three weeks.

While the Ota exhibit was the most popular at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, not all respected white men were in favor of this. The Mayor of New York City and the Zoo manager were incensed by the inhumanity and horror of putting a man of any color into a cage as part of the exhibit. Yet, their appeals to stop it fell on deaf ears. Others clearly thought that it proved the white or brown man was superior to the black when it came to intelligence. They were inferior. It obviously sent the wrong message to the general public and to think National Geographic was behind this makes one speechless.

But, it was not too long before the exhibit began to get bad press from major publications as being in "bad taste" and "disgusting" because after all, inferior or not, Ota was a 23 yr. old man who had far less opportunity than anyone in the USA. He was still a human being worthy of respect. As the press got worse regarding the exhibit, the Zoological Society decided to dump Ota to a colored orphanage in Long Island. Then, in 1910, he moved to a black seminary in Lynchburg, VA. While there, he assumed the name Otto Bingo and worked in a tobacco factory and entertaining in broken English. He would tell stories of hunting wild elephants in the Congo jungles and life there. But, he was deeply missing his Congo and living in this odd society with no jungles took its toll until he committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart in 1916.

The mere fact that Ota endured what he did and made the best of it, adopted English, learned new jobs and how to earn money, showed that with opportunity and training he was not inferior physically or mentally. Of inspiring stories, Ota remains one for today.


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    • perrya profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thanks. I was startled also. But, given the early 1900's, it was not totally shocking about the way of thinking many had. This would make a great movie to make though. I know we think that a human is also an animal of a higher level, but seeing a man in a zoo is too much.

    • profile image 

      3 years ago

      Wow Thank you Perrya. I have not heard of Ota Benga and what a story which really shows how insensitive even supposedly learned men can be.


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