Home News History Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History Of Scientific Racism

Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History Of Scientific Racism

Ota Benga at the St. Louis World's Fair, 1904
Ota Benga at the St. Louis World's Fair, 1904

If you have not already seen or ordered the new documentary Human Zoos, by John West, you should. You can watch the film now on Amazon Prime or get it on DVD or Blu-ray.

When you are done watching you may wonder: How do folks at the Bronx Zoo today feel about the caging of a human being as an evolutionary lesson, and whatever happened to the Monkey House where African pygmy Ota Benga was displayed in 1906?

Victims of Evolution

The Monkey House was opened in 1901 but decommissioned in 2012. Why? Ironically, a New York Times article cites “evolution.”

“It was a casualty of evolution, but not the biological kind.

‘Zoo exhibitry has evolved since the Monkey House opened, said Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo. Originally, he said, animals were grouped taxonomically, so you typically had a large cat house, a monkey house, a pachyderm house. They stuck all these animals together in groups that seemed to make sense.

Later, zoos usually grouped the animals according to the habitats or continents they had come from. Later still, zoos tried to present animals in as naturalistic a setting as possible, said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an industry group.

That’s both for the education of visitors and for the care and welfare of the animals themselves, Mr. Feldman said.”

So that makes two “casualties” of evolution,” Ota Benga and the Monkey House. As a historic landmark, the latter cannot be torn down. The current zoo director, Mr. Breheny, did acknowledge the Ota Benga story. “It’s certainly something that shouldn’t have happened,” he told the Times. Understatement of the year!

That is a picture of the building above, when it was still in use in 2009. It is actually a wonderful architectural treasure in the Beaux-Arts style, designed by the architects Heins & LaFarge.

When the Monkey House closed, Scientific American also took note of the evolutionary angle:

“There will, after all, still be monkeys in Bronx, and perhaps our understanding of them will be better than just a consignment of ‘goofiness. Perhaps there will be more room for science and anthropology to help fire imaginations and bring us closer to understanding our own evolutionary history.”

Of course, hammering home the lesson about “our own evolutionary history” was exactly the purpose behind displaying and humiliating an African man with monkeys.

“Human Zoos” tells the shocking story of how thousands of indigenous peoples were put on public display in America in the early decades of the twentieth century, and most famously one man, Ota Benga.

Often touted as “missing links” between man and apes, these native peoples were harassed and demeaned. Their public display was arranged with the enthusiastic support of the most elite members of the scientific community, and it was promoted uncritically by America’s leading newspapers. This award-winning documentary explores the heartbreaking story of what happened, shows how African-American ministers and other people of faith tried to push back, and reveals how some people today are still drawing on Social Darwinism in order to dehumanize others. The film also explores the tragic story of eugenics in America, the effort to breed humans beings based on Darwinian principles.

For more information and to purchase, please visit here.

Ota Benga (c. 1883 – March 20, 1916) was an Mbuti (Congo pygmy) man, known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, and in a human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. He was 4 ft 11 in (150 cm) and had weight of 103 lbs (47 kg). Benga had been purchased from African slave traders by the missionary and anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman searching for African people for the exhibition. He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was exhibited in the zoo’s Monkey House. Except for a brief visit with Verner to Africa after the close of the St. Louis Fair, Benga lived in the United States, mostly in Virginia, for the rest of his life.

African-American newspapers around the nation published editorials strongly opposing Benga’s treatment. Robert Stuart MacArthur, spokesman for a delegation of black churches, petitioned New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. for his release from the Bronx Zoo.

In late 1906, the mayor released Benga to the custody of James M. Gordon, who supervised the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. In 1910, Gordon arranged for Benga to be cared for in Virginia, where he paid for him to acquire American clothes and to have his teeth capped, so the young man could be more readily accepted in local society. Benga was tutored in English and began to work at a Lynchburg tobacco factory. He proved a valuable employee because he could climb up the poles to get the tobacco leaves without having to use a ladder. He began to plan a return to Africa, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 stopped ship passenger travel.

Benga fell into a depression, and he committed suicide on March 20, 1916 (aged 32) by a by gunshot to the heart. His resting place is White Rock Cemetery in Lynchburg, VA.