On this day in 1916, Ota Benga committed suicide in Lynchburg. The four-foot-nine-inch Benga was a Congolese-born Pygmy whose family was killed in a raid in 1902 or 1903. He was captured, sold into slavery, and finally, in 1904, brought to the United States by a missionary who displayed him first at the Saint Louis World’s Fair and then—as you can see above—at the Bronx Zoo.
Such were the racial attitudes of the day that “saving” Benga from his life in Africa still meant putting him up to live in the Primate House. In 1910 he managed to find his way to Lynchburg and there befriended the poet Anne Spencer.
But even her company was not enough. This was, after all, Virginia, and on this day in 1924, the General Assembly passed its first Racial Integrity Act. While the cage around Ota Benga had been more literal, perhaps, the law still restricted the social movement of African Americans. For starters, no marrying whites. But more than that, the state took a fervid interest in the racial composition of its citizens, demanding that everyone be registered according to their “admixture” and treated accordingly:
That the State registrar of vital statistics may, as soon as practicable after the taking effect of this act, prepare a form whereon the racial composition of any individual, as Caucasian, Negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indian, Malay, or any mixture thereof, or any other non-Caucasic strains, and if there be any mixture, then, the racial composition of the parents and other ancestors, in so far as ascertainable, so as to show in what generation such mixture occurred, may be certified by such individual, which form shall be known as a registration certificate.
Lest the proud descendants of Pocahontas worry about their being—gasp!—American Indian, the law provided that “persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indians and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons.”
I sometimes wonder if Ota Benga and Virginia more generally are just riffs on the theme of that famous Vietnamese town of Bến Tre: “We had to destroy the village …”
IMAGE: “African Pygmy, Ota Benga and Chimpanzee, From a photograph made in 1906 in the Zoological Park, New York City” (New York Zoological Society)