In 1904, Ota Benga, a young African man from Congo, was forcibly taken to the United States, where he became a victim of racial exploitation. Placed on display in a zoo alongside monkeys, his story sheds light on the deep-rooted racial prejudices that continue to haunt us today.
This article delves into the distressing events surrounding Ota Benga’s captivity, highlighting the shocking origins of enduring racial discrimination.
The Shocking Display
On Monday, September 10, 1906, a group of black ministers were summoned to an urgent meeting at Harlem’s Mount Olivet Baptist Church. Filled with fury, they had just learned that a young African man, described as a “pygmy,” had been exhibited in the monkey enclosure of the largest zoo in New York City. The New York Times had covered the story the previous day, with a headline that read, “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes.” This astonishing display drew crowds of up to 500 people, all gathering at the cage to witness Ota Benga.
A Tragic Figure
Ota Benga, standing at just under 5 feet tall and weighing 103 pounds, was moved from a smaller chimpanzee cage to a larger one to make him more visible. To attract even more onlookers, an orangutan named Dohang was placed in the same enclosure. Benga, who appeared much younger than his claimed age of 23, sat motionless on a stool, peering through the bars as the assembled crowds taunted him. His vulnerability and distress were palpable, serving as a stark reminder of the vulnerable position black individuals occupied in the nation’s capital, even forty years after the abolition of slavery in America.
Spectator Enthusiasm and Public Indifference
The media attention generated by the New York Times article only fueled the curiosity of the masses. The exhibition of Ota Benga was met with enthusiasm by New York’s media, scientists, public officials, and ordinary citizens. Disturbingly, the response from white society was largely indifferent, leaving “colored” ministers and a small group of sympathetic elites isolated in their outrage. In September alone, over 220,000 people visited the zoo, double the number from the previous year. The majority of these visitors made a beeline for the primate house, eager to catch a glimpse of Ota Benga.
The Desensitization and Devaluation
As Ota Benga’s captivity became a subject of national and international headlines, the shock and outrage gradually faded away. The constant exposure to his plight through media coverage desensitized the public, numbing their empathy for a human being held captive alongside animals. This tragic situation served as a painful testament to the devaluation of black lives by their fellow Americans, leaving the pastors appalled at the disregard shown toward one of their own, forced to live among monkeys.
Ota Benga’s harrowing ordeal stands as a stark reminder of the enduring racial prejudice that continues to haunt our society. The exhibition of a young African man alongside animals in a prominent zoo shed light on the dehumanization and mistreatment endured by black individuals during that era. It is crucial to remember this dark chapter in history to ensure that we actively challenge and dismantle racial prejudices, striving for a society that values the dignity and equality of all its members.