On March 20, 1916, Ota Benga fired a bullet into his heart, ending the tragic life of the so-called “missing link” from Africa.
Today, Benga is remembered as a martyr for the cause to end racism. But back then, he was a curiosity, caged in the zoo with a monkey and subjected to cruel treatment by his captors as well as relentless jeers from the crowd.
Amazingly Benga was locked up in New York’s Bronx Zoo 40 years after the end of slavery in America. Truly mind blowing on so many sick levels.
Here’s what happened: Samuel Phillips Verner, an American businessman, traveled to Africa for the purpose of rounding up pygmies for a “cultural evolution” display at the World’s Fair’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Verner picked up Benga in 1904, and brought him to the States.
The 32-year old Mbuti man stood four feet, eleven inches tall, and his teeth were filed to sharp points, as was the tradition of his tribe. With his “odd” appearance, Benga fit right in with the eyebrow-raising exhibit, which showed real people from many faraway, exotic lands dressed in their native gear and placed on a theatrical reproduction of their homes… albeit behind barriers.
After the fair, Benga was sent home to Africa, but he was rounded up once again. This time, he was put on display at the Bronx Zoo. The secretary of the zoo was Madison Grant, whose dissertations on the “dangers” of “inferior” races breeding with Caucasians, actually earned him a fan letter from Adolf Hitler! So this is where Benga was… he had no chance for dignity, except to die with it.
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.”
WTF!!! Um, no. He wasn’t enjoying himself. This was an inhumane atrocity on all fronts.
Due to public outcry, Benga was let go from the zoo… but how could be possibly integrate into American society? World War I broke out, stopping all sea travel, forcing Benga to stay in the U.S. With help he changed his name to Otto Bingo, had his teeth capped, and found a place to live. But to him, his life was over.
On March 20, 1916, Benga pulled the caps from his teeth, started a ceremonial fire, and shot himself in the heart.
RIP, Ota Benga. #NeverForget