PAFF 2016: Ota Benga: Human At The Zoo

 

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One of the really cool trivia items about my home town St. Louis, Missouri is that the 1904 World’s Fair happened there.  It covered more than 1200 acres and was the largest fair of that era – more than twice the size of the 1693 Chicago World’s Fair.  The St. Louis World’s Fair is also at the forefront of the storyline for the famous Judy Garland flick “Meet Me In St. Louis” (which BTW is pronounced Saint Loous NOT Saint Looeeee).

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Another fun fact about the fair is that St. Louis served as the during the St. Louis Olympic Games, George Coleman Poage, became the first African-American athlete to win medals in the modern Olympics.  He won bronze in the 200 and 400 meter hurdles.

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However, it wasn’t until the 2016 Pan African Film and Art Festival was my faced cracked about a little tidbit I had NEVER heard about – even as someone who grew up in St. Louis.

Apparently, American Indians, Filipinos, and other “primitives” from the Far East and South America were invited to participate as “living displays.” They provided fairgoers with a rare, firsthand encounter with peoples from far-off lands.  Today, we understand that this is just outright, blatant racism.  However, at that time the Fair organizers believed that they were enlightening Exposition visitors.

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Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy, lived a nightmare.

Brought to America by Samuel Phillips Verner, a former Presbyterian minister from South Carolina, who had—like so many white men at the turn of the century—left his calling to pursue fame and fortune in Africa. He achieved this by acquiring natives for display at human zoos.

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How Verner met Benga is unclear, but we do know that he brought Benga into the country as part of a “native” exhibition at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s fair. After his appearance at the St. Louis fair, Benga was supposed to be returned to his home country, and he did travel with Verner back to the Belgian-controlled Congo.

Yet for unknown reasons, two years after Benga was displayed and kept in deplorable conditions in St. Louis, he returned with Verner to the United States. This time, Verner brought Benga to the Bronx Zoo where he was caged in the Monkey House, displayed with an orangutan, and labelled like every other animal in the zoo.

The next day, word was out. The headline in The New York Times read: “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes.” Thousands went to the zoo that day to see the new attraction, but the end came quickly. Confronted with the protests of the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference,  the exhibit was suspended that Monday afternoon.

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To the black ministers and their allies, the message of the exhibit was clear: The African was meant to be seen as falling somewhere on the evolutionary scale between the apes with which he was housed and the people in the overwhelmingly white crowds who found him so entertaining.  Verner and his colleagues tried to justify their actions by using the Darwin’s Theory of Evolution explained in the book “The Origin of the Species”.

“The person responsible for this exhibition,” said the Rev. R. S. MacArthur, a white man who was pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church, “degrades himself as much as he does the African. Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, we should be putting him in school for the development of such powers as God gave him.”

However, kept in captivity for a month,  at age 32 years old in Lynchberg, VA, Benga took his own life and is buried in an unmarked grave to fend off opportunists who may have wanted to dig up the body for their own personal and financial gain.

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