This Day (A Day in the Zoo Edition)

Published:March 20, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

"African Pygmy, Ota Benga and Chimpanzee, From a photograph made in 1906 in the Zoological Park, New York City" (New York Zoological Society)

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)


3 Comments on “This Day (A Day in the Zoo Edition)”

  1. Michael C. Lucas

    Why do you insists on presenting subjects with political bias agendas. By imposing moral presentism and not the moral reasoning of the period. It detracts from the veracity of human nature, and imposes distortions of the past to suit political agendas by making the delusional presumption that people have actually evolved to be better than our forefathers. It’s not just you, but people in general who presume a negative in the actions of our forefathers who were subject to their times. Judge not lest ye be judged as we are equally subject to ours. By exhibiting Ota Benga in this fashion, its not unlike what the missionary did. How can you connect the legislation of the racial integrity act to Ota Benga? Ota Benga & the Racial Integrity Act have nothing to do with the other, except in the coincidence of existing in the same period.

  2. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for your comment, Mr. Lucas. In this case, you’re absolutely right: I do have a bias, which is that the treatment of African Americans as second-class citizens, especially during that period in Virginia history from 1901 through the civil rights movement, was wrong. I didn’t anticipate that this particular bias would be objectionable, which is why I felt so free in expressing it. I mean, if we can’t agree, here in 2013, that it was bad to put Ota Benga in a cage and to prohibit blacks and whites from marrying each other, then what can we agree on?

    If you don’t agree, then by all means let us know. Make your argument.

    In the meantime, I don’t have a political agenda here because it’s already legal for blacks and whites to marry, not to mention illegal to display Africans in cages.

    Still, I do have plenty of political opinions that are up for argument. And while I do not fear being judged for them, I really do attempt to keep that part of my business private on the blog.

    Thanks again.

  3. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    With apologies, I forgot to address your question: “How can you connect the legislation of the racial integrity act to Ota Benga?”

    The connection is this: in the early part of the twentieth century, the United States was a place where “saving” a man from his home in African involved displaying him in a cage with monkeys. He came to Virginia, ironically, to escape that treatment. He he did find some manner of love and respect in Lynchburg; I should make that clear. But not enough, clearly.

    And for all of its good, now and then, Virginia was also a place that demeaned its African Americans and its Indians. The Bronx Zoo demeaned Ota Benga in one way, and Virginia demeaned its men and women of African descent in other ways.

    Do you see it differently?

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