Black Lives Matter can take credit for the scores of apologies from around the world for racist statues, discriminatory corporate policies, and now from the Bronx Zoo for its cruel and racist display of an African man in a cage in 1904.
Hundred years ago a black man was put on display like an animal in a zoo exhibit. A young African boy named Ota Benga was a Mbuti man, known for being featured in an exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, and in a human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo.
Benga had been purchased from African slave traders by the missionary Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman searching for African people for the exhibition. Verner brought him to the United States. Later, at the Bronx Zoo, Benga was allowed to walk 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, the 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 Lynchburg, Virginia, where he paid for him to acquire American clothes and to have his sharpened teeth capped. This would enable Benga to be more readily accepted in local society. Benga was tutored in English and began to work at a Lynchburg tobacco factory.
He tried to return to Africa, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 stopped all ship passenger travel. Benga fell into a depression. He committed suicide in 1916.