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Remembering Ota Benga in Virginia

 Ota Benga, a Pygmy from the Congo, holds a chimpanzee at the New York Zoological Park (also known as the Bronx Zoo) in 1906. This image illustrated a story in the July 1916 edition of the Zoological Society Bulletin, an official publication of the New York Zoological Society. The author of the article was Samuel P. Verner, the Presbyterian missionary who purchased Benga's freedom from slavery in Africa. Benga accompanied Verner on several trips to the United States, and in 1906 Verner arranged for Benga to move into the Primate House at the New York Zoological Society. The exhibition of a man sharing a cage with an orangutan, chimpanzees, and a parrot, created a public outcry, and lasted only a few weeks. In the bulletin article, Verner downplayed the "sensational" aspect of the exhibit and claimed, "The Zoological Park simply gave him temporary employment in feeding the anthropoid apes, and a safe and comfortable home for a short time, while I was engaged in private affairs which needed my attention after … years of absence in Africa."

Ota Benga, a Pygmy from the Congo, holds a chimpanzee at the New York Zoological Park (also known as the Bronx Zoo) in 1906. This image illustrated a story in the July 1916 edition of the Zoological Society Bulletin, an official publication of the New York Zoological Society. The author of the article was Samuel P. Verner, the Presbyterian missionary who purchased Benga’s freedom from slavery in Africa. Benga accompanied Verner on several trips to the United States, and in 1906 Verner arranged for Benga to move into the Primate House at the New York Zoological Society. The exhibition of a man sharing a cage with an orangutan, chimpanzees, and a parrot, created a public outcry, and lasted only a few weeks. In the bulletin article, Verner downplayed the “sensational” aspect of the exhibit and claimed, “The Zoological Park simply gave him temporary employment in feeding the anthropoid apes, and a safe and comfortable home for a short time, while I was engaged in private affairs which needed my attention after … years of absence in Africa.”

The Washington Post recently reviewed a new biography of Ota Benga: Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga by Pamela Newkirk. Benga, you’ll recall, was a member of the Badi Pygmi tribe in the Belgian Congo when his wife and two children were killed in a raid. After being captured and sold into slavery, he was rescued by a Presbyterian minister who brought him to the United States—good news—but who also put him on display in the Bronx Zoo—bad news. The review goes into all that, suggesting that Spectacle is “an exhaustively researched work of social history that links Benga’s story with examinations of turn-of-the-century racial discrimination and discord, scientific polygenism (a theory proposing different origins for people of different races), middle-class African American life in New York, and yellow journalism.”
Which is great. But it doesn’t mention Virginia. The review, that is. I’m sure the book does.
But if you read our entry on Benga, you’ll learn that he actually spent his last years in Lynchburg, befriending the poet Anne Spencer. You’ll also learn about his sad end.
This part of the story is not quite as crazy, perhaps, as his life in a zoo, but it’s an important one, nonetheless.
PS—Does everything always have to be “astonishing”?

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