March 20, 1916 - An African pygmy tribesman named Ota Benga died on this day. His extraordinary life became a flashpoint in the debates over race and evolution.
Ota Benga was born and raised in the Congo. His family lived a simple life in the forest until his wife and children were massacred by an infamous group of mercenaries known as the Force Publique. Ota was on a hunting trip at the time, but upon his return he was captured and handed over to slave traders.
He was sold to an eccentric American named Samuel Verner for a pound of salt and bolt of cloth. Verner was in Africa looking for "primitive" people to feature at the 1904 World's Fair at St. Louis. Publicity billed the exhibit as a showcase of the "permanent wildmen of the world, the races that had been left behind."
As fairgoers looked on, Ota and 4 fellow pygmies sat around a mud hut weaving baskets and sharpening spears. Ota was particularly popular and he was often asked to pose for photographs baring his distinctive teeth which had been filed down to sharp points. Another star attraction at the fair was Geronimo, the Apache chief. The elder Indian befriended Ota and gave him one of his prized arrowheads.
When the fair ended, Ota returned to the Congo with Verner, but transitioning to life back in the forest was difficult. Ota married again, but his wife was killed by a snakebite. When Verner traveled back to America, Ota asked to come along.
New York's American Museum of Natural History was Ota's home for a brief time. He lived in a small room and earned his keep by wearing a duck costume to entertain children. His mischievous spirit got him trouble from time to time. It came to a head when he hurled a chair at the wealthy philanthropist, Florence Guggenheim, just missing her.
Booted from the museum, Ota landed at the Bronx Zoo where the director, William Hornaday, decided to put Ota on display in the monkey house. Hornaday attached this famous sign to the exhibit:
The African Pigmy, "Ota Benga." Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.
Bones were scattered about the enclosure for added effect and the attraction became a sensation. Tens of thousands of visitors came to see the supposed missing link. The New York Times ran a story about the exhibit and it included the following:
The exhibition was that of a human being in a monkey cage. The human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale, but to the average nonscientific person in the crowd of sightseers there was something about the display that was unpleasant...It is probably a good thing that Benga doesn't think very deeply. If he did it isn't likely that he was very proud of himself when he woke in the morning and found himself under the same roof with the orangutans and monkeys, for that is where he really is.
It wasn't unusual for some in the crowd to jeer or throw peanuts at Ota, and eventually the mild-mannered pygmy reached his breaking point. He created a bow and arrow and fired off a few shots at a particularly obnoxious heckler.
A group of ministers had already demanded that the exhibit be closed, but it's unclear whether they were motivated by the human rights issue, or if they felt the display was raising too much awareness for the theory of evolution. Whatever the case, Ota was liberated from the zoo and found his way to a Baptist seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia.
In 1910 Ota got his teeth capped. He took a few classes and got a job in a tobacco factory. His social life flourished. Ota made friends with the poet Anne Spencer, and through her he was introduced to the legendary educator, Booker T. Washington.
After a few years living a relatively normal life, Ota longed to return to his home in the Congo. Sadly, the outbreak of World War I made that dream impossible.
On March 20, 1916, Ota chipped off the caps on his pointed teeth then shot himself in the heart with a stolen shotgun. He was buried in an unmarked grave.