Home / Be The Change / 100 Years Ago Today, Ota Benga, A Black Man Held in the Bronx Zoo as ‘Missing Link,’ Ended His Life

100 Years Ago Today, Ota Benga, A Black Man Held in the Bronx Zoo as ‘Missing Link,’ Ended His Life

(RT) — 100 years ago, on March 20, 1916, Ota Benga took a gun and fired a bullet into his own heart, ending the short and tragic life of the “missing link” from Africa.

His treatment at the hands of so-called gentlemen from New York’s Bronx Zoo and the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri came in the height of the eugenics movement, forty years after the end of (legal) slavery in America.

Today, Benga is remembered for his sacrifice in documentaries and on social media networks like Twitter, a martyr for the cause to end racism.

The 32-year old Mbuti man from along the Kasai River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo stood just four feet, eleven inches tall and had teeth filed to sharp points, which was reportedly a tradition for his tribe.

His early life in the forests of Belgian Congo were violent and his wife and two children were killed by the Force Publique.

Samuel Phillips Verner, an American businessman in Africa tasked with acquiring pygmies for a “cultural evolution” display at the World’s Fair’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition, encountered Benga in 1904.

How Verner came to “acquire” Benga is unclear, with the “pioneering” Presbyterian missionary claiming to have “saved” him from a cannibalistic tribe who had kidnapped him.

Using Benga as a recruitment tool who could downplay the rightfully-distrustful attitude about white men, Verner managed to find more natives and brought them all to the US to be part of the exposition’s human displays.

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The controversial exhibit showed real humans from a number of “exotic” ethnicities dressed in their native gear on a staged reproduction of their homes.

He returned to Africa after the fair and married for the second time, but came back to the US when his new wife died of a snakebite.

Verner got him a place to live inside at the American Museum of Natural History in New York where he was “free to roam”until he threw a chair at Florence Guggenheim and was relocated to the Bronx Zoo.

On a dark day in 1906, 40 years after the abolishment of slavery, Benga was billed as the “missing link”, on display in the Bronx Zoo cage alongside a monkey.

Crowds flocked to see the sight which entertained and disgusted in equal measure.

The secretary of the zoo at the time was eugenicist Madison Grant, whose writings on the “dangers” of “inferior” races outbreeding and mixed breeding with Caucasians earned him a letter of thanks from Adolf Hitler.

Despite the zoo claiming Benga was “employed”, he was never paid for his work in which he assisted employees in their duties.

Noting his popularity with visitors and his affection for the monkey enclosure, Benga was encouraged step by step to take up residency with the monkeys.

Soon his hammock was in an empty cage and a target was set up for his bow and arrow, ensuring he rarely needed to leave. He was now one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits.

The New York Times wrote, “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.”

There was also disgust expressed at Benga’s display, with a reader of The New York Globe writing: “I lived in the south several years, and consequently am not overfond of the negro, but believe him human. I think it a shame that the authorities of this great city should allow such a sight as that witnessed at the Bronx Park — a negro boy on exhibition in a monkey cage.”

Days later, the exhibit came to an end when members of the Colored Baptist Ministers Conference protested what they called “degrading”.

“We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls,” the committee wrote.

Benga was removed from the enclosure, but was now famous for the wrong reasons.

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Still “resident” at the zoo, now “free to roam” again, crowds followed the man, jeering and shouting at him.

He then moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where his teeth were capped and his name changed to Otto Bingo, his American nickname.

He attended school for a short time until he felt his English was sufficient and took up work at a tobacco factory.

Soon he pined for his home in Africa, but a return was not likely due to the outbreak of World War I preventing passenger ship travel.

On March 20, 1916, he removed the caps from his teeth, built a ceremonial fire, and with a stolen gun, shot himself in what was likely a broken heart.

Benga was buried in an unmarked grave in Lynchburg, but his legacy lives on to remind us of man’s potential brutality to man.

  • Paul Ynwa Davies

    people are shit

  • Maria Morales-Fowler

    What a cruel and disgusting world.

  • [email protected]

    beyond any comprehension….EVIL!!!

    • Noel Defen

      It should not be beyond comprehension. Mankind still locks up who it can, to gawk at as inferior. SeaWorld confines dolphins and whales in tiny tanks and forces them to perform tricks, there are zoos in every state of the US imprisoning every possible kind of creature, circuses hold elephants and tigers and monkey and force them to dance for the laughing audience…. and there are endless people who are still un-evolved enough to find such imprisonment and evil “entertaining.” This story is no shock. Mankind is the worst species on earth.

      • Tommy J

        Other than the fact that you’re making your point by comparing this man to animals, and ignoring the tremendous potential for good that is also inherent in mankind, making it the greatest species on earth, I guess I agree…

      • Khia Angelou

        Fuck people who further dehumanize already-dehumanized people by comparing their treatment to animals (meaning fuck you.)

      • Devin Wilson

        Zoos contribute more to conservation than keyboard warriors like you ever have. While they fund species survival programs all you do is sign petitions to shut them down, because according to people like you, animals in human care no matter how well taken care of are “enslaved”.

  • Tammy Carmack

    beyond sickening

  • Eric Kennedy

    only in the usa


    • Tim Snizek

      sadly no, not only in the usa.

      • Brian McAloon

        Agreed. Cruelty and racism happened and happens all over the world.

      • rhm

        def. not just in the USA. In many cases much much much worse outside it not that ANY of it is ok.

    • Suzy Six Clay

      Actually, it wasn’t only in America but a bunch of European countries and cities. Paris, Barcelona, Antwerp, Belgium, Hamburg….. http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/09/09/13-shameful-pictures-europeans-placing-african-people-human-zoos/

    • Laura Liles

      No, not true. Animal cruelty happens in every single country of this world.

      • Rachel Kuras

        Either you are an idiot comparing animal cruelty and basically slavery.. or an ignorant racist..I can’t decide which is worse.

        • Steven Anthony George

          Wow, yeah, this is NOT a story about animal cruelty…

          • Guest

            Actually, it’s an extremely relevant point of view. Humans are animals. (Really, look it up.) Believing it’s somehow okay to kidnap, cage, abuse, humiliate, profit from, experiment on, and murder non-human animals (as we still do today) because they are inferior to ourselves is exactly the ignorant type of reasoning used by this man’s captors. He was viewed as less evolved than other humans, therefore it was acceptable to treat him in that manner and even place him on display with a chimp. One day, we will look back at our treatment of non-human animals with the same level of horror and disgust. We will wonder how it was allowed to continue.

          • Steven Anthony George

            Yes, I am quite aware the humans are animals. So aware that I do not need to “look it up”…

            However, we do make a distinction between us and “non-human” animals, hence your use of the term “non-human animals.”

        • Guest

          First off, humans are animals by definition. Second, non-human animals are not as different from us as some people would like to think. In fact, is precisely that type of thinking, which allows such horrible acts of cruelty to continue to be justified.

    • Buster Hymen

      Where are they building your cage, you know, for the most uneducated post in history?

  • James Dosher

    He had to go to the Jim Crow South to be paid for his labor? That is layering on the absurd upon the inhumanity of it all. Also, the ‘couldn’t find a ship to return him home because of WWI’ is idiotic. The Belgian Congo continued to provide resources to the Entente cause throughout the war. Seriously, if they were worried about his safety, they could have shelled out a few more bucks and sent him home by way of Brazil – perfectly safe. That is yet another excuse piled upon a litany of deceptions, evasions and lies.

  • Addison

    What about that black woman that was kept by a surgeon so he could practice new surgical techniques on female reproductive tracts?

    • David Bright

      You are speaking of Marion Sims. The father of gynecology. He experimented on hundreds of black women. Using them as guinea pigs. His purpose for not using white women is because he believed they cannot endure the amount of pain necessary to survive his experiments

  • Katrina Kitty Dewiel Dugan

    With all the history classes I took in high school and college, why were we never taught about this atrocity?

    • Kells

      Reason is simple… Because they don’t want you to know the wickedness exhibited upon the blacks in those days..

  • Lovern Fraser


  • Billy Thomas

    While the country complains that the confederate battle flag is flown at state capitals in a handful of states in the south the Bronx is in NY, NY and back when this guy was kept in the Bronx zoo NY, NY was still a part of America and they flew the stars and stripes so maybe people in the south should complain because state capitals all over the country still fly the stars and stripes.

  • Brian McAloon

    So sad. Just sad.

  • R.Y.S.

    “Benga was buried in an unmarked grave in Lynchburg, but his legacy lives on to remind us of man’s potential brutality to man.”

    Correction: It’s to remind us of the white man’s potential brutality to man. Let’s call a spade a spade.

    • Linda Richter

      The potential is in all people, the ability to carry it out depends on power and culture. One can find instances of brutality amongst all colors and races. Otherwise, we simply have eugenics again asserting that white people are brutal…I am white, I am not brutal towards other human beings.

      Nonetheless, I am not proud of white European cultural history. 🙁

      • Benjamin H.

        Literally every group of humans to ever live has done bad things in the past. The Mongolians raised massive hordes and killed 50-60 million people during the time of the Khans. African tribes regularly and frequently waged brutal wars against each other. Does this mean that Mongolians, Africans, and Europeans can’t be proud of their history because of the bad stuff that happened? I don’t think so.

        If anything European slavery was relatively tame and mild. You should read up on some of the stuff the Akkadians got up to.

        I totally disagree with this idea that white people should only be allowed to be ashamed of their cultural history, while everyone else gets to feel ‘proud’ of theirs. These were different times. I don’t think you can judge people who lived in such different times with your own modern morality. It’s the same reason you shouldn’t judge the Aztecs for their ceremonial sacrifices (often unwilling), etc.

  • Jamila Pereira

    Disgusting pigs!

  • Frank Kaffenberger

    This breaks my heart

  • sarah

    Where in Lynchburg is this unmarked grave??

  • Roger Langford

    Blacks would have been better off if the south had won the war. In the Old South blacks had social welfare on the plantation – exactly what Bernie Sanders is trying to get back for them now.

  • Danielle Weiries

    the word sacrifice is used wrong here. that is just plain a travesty. by that event in his life too many learned no good thing. just sicker than sick

  • Chris Overholt

    “…could downplay the rightfully-distrustful attitude about white men…”

    How is this not racist?

  • This ‘article’ is about 90% bullshit. For the real events, see;

    Spiro, Jonathan Peter
    2009 “Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant” University of Vermont Press

    In brief, the entire village of Ota Benga was murdered by Belgian troops (that was correctly reported above).

    Samuel Phillips Verner, a missionary and animal dealer bought Ota Benga from slavers.

    The Atlanta Worlds Fair had a section devoted to world cultures. People from around the world posed in “living dioramas” wearing their home culture clothing in simulated home settings. The team of Benga and Verner recruited almost an entire village. They in fact won the grand prize. When the villagers returned home, Benga chose to stay in the USA with Verner.

    They sold African animals to the Bronx Zoo.

    Verner went to visit family in N. Carolina, and Benga stayed in New York employed as an animal keeper at the zoo. Someone had the idea that he could spend 1 or 2 hours in native dress in the primate house with one of the chimps they had purchased from he and Verner.

    He was a smash success reported on the front page of the New Your Times. Huge crowds appeared. On his regular work hours, Benga in his zoo uniform did his regular job. However, people began following him around. After ~2week of this, a few young men were pushing, and tripping Benga as he worked. He drew a knife to frighten them away.

    This caused an uproar.

    The Reverends of the city’s “Orphanage for Colored Boys” demand that Benga be placed in their care. (In spite of the fact Benga was an adult).

    Verner returned to New York, and fetched Benga back to N. Carolina.

    That was the end of the “zoo” story. The entire course of events was less than 2 months.

    Benga next took a job at a cigarette factory, and roomed as a nearby boarding house. He had his teeth capped, and attended a local church.

    Verner decided to go on a new animal collecting project to Africa. Benga chose to stay in Virginia. It seems he had become enamored of a local girl. He actually proposed, but was rejected. (He had learned to write, and these events were in letters sent to Verner).

    Benga wanted join Verner in Africa, but by that time the First World War was getting started, and travel to Africa was blocked.

    Benga became more depressed, and suicided.