Author: Ted Delaney

the archivist and curator of the Old City Cemetery Museums & Arboretum in Lynchburg. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and coauthor of Free Blacks of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1805—1865. He has consulted and written extensively about African American history and genealogy, as well as grave marking and mortuary customs in nineteenth-century Virginia

Ota Benga (ca. 1883–1916)

Ota Benga was a Mbuti man who was brought to the United States from Central Africa and displayed at the Saint Louis World’s Fair, the Museum of Natural History, and the Bronx Zoo Monkey House before settling in Lynchburg, where he died by suicide. Benga left no account of his own life, so the details of his early years are not known with certainty. In 1904 Samuel Phillips Verner, a former Presbyterian missionary and self-styled adventurer, brought Benga from Central Africa to the United States to appear in an exhibit at the Saint Louis World’s Fair. In 1906 Benga was the subject of an ethnological exposition at the Bronx Zoo Monkey House in New York City. These types of exhibits were purportedly motivated by science and a desire to educate. In fact, they were rooted in white supremacist ideology and degraded and exploited their human subjects. The Benga exhibition drew tens of thousands of visitors; it also caused an outcry among local Black ministers. The exhibit closed after a few weeks. Benga spent three years in a Brooklyn, New York, orphanage before relocating to Lynchburg. There, he attended the Virginia Theological Seminary and College and befriended the seminary’s president, his wife, and their children, as well as the poet Anne Spencer. Benga died by suicide on March 20, 1916. For many, Benga personifies the shameful exploitation of African people by European colonial powers, as well as the historical use of science and anthropology to support racism and ethnocentrism.