Pamela Newkirk described quite vividly in her 2015 book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.
“Like the orangutans and the monkeys, he was at the mercy of the keepers, who decided when he could enter the building and avoid the crowds. Until then, he was unavoidably on display and, like his housemates, subjected to the disquieting hysteria and stares of a seemingly endless stream of spectators.
“Benga became the object of pointing fingers, audible gasps, and bellowing laughter. Alone and locked in a monkey house cage, he could, in the September Indian summer heat, smell the stench of ape feces, urine, and musk laced with the foreign odors of hundreds of spectators packed into his steamy, cramped quarters. He did not initially comprehend their language, but could feel both the sting of their scorn and the pang of their pity. In their wide eyes he could see his humanity, like one’s image in a fun house mirror, monstrously distorted.”
It doesn’t get any worse than that.
For some might argue that interracial violence in America has at least sprung from a human context. Hating a certain group of strangers enough to want to kill them is usually a reflection of fear. And buried though it may be, fear is at least a twisted form of respect.
Ota Benga, however, was summarily demoted to the status of a lesser species. Later, in Lynchburg, the long-term effects of that humiliation became all too obvious.
The degree to which Africans themselves contributed to the practice of slavery is not always acknowledged, but they were essential to the process. It was, after all, hardly practical for European slavers to wander about the Dark Continent hoping to capture future chattel. In most cases, their “cargo” had already been collected and was waiting for them.
Sometimes, those slaves-to-be had been the losers in inter-tribal warfare. Indeed, from the perspective of the winners, the slave merchants represented a golden opportunity. Not only would they bring goods to exchange for captives, they would transport those rival tribesmen back across the ocean, never again to pose a threat.
These practices continued even after slavery had been abolished in western countries like the United States. And when Samuel Phillips Verner visited the Congo in 1902, hoping to fulfill a contract with the St. Louis World’s Fair to deliver pygmies for an anthropological exhibit, he knew just where to look.
Ann van de Graaf, a Lynchburg artist and art gallery owner, has immersed herself in the Ota Benga story. In her brief pamphlet “Ota Benga and the Pygmies: An Ongoing Story,” she set the stage for Verner’s arrival:
“The Congo was a colony created by Leopold II, king of Belgium. He was a despot who carried out terrible atrocities through his state militia, called the Force Publique, in order to plunder the country for his own financial gain.
“At first the Pgymies were not affected, but later they were forced to hunt elephants for their ivory. Even Ota Benga suffered from the cruelties of the Force Publique. One day, upon his return from a hunting expedition, he found his village devastated and his wife and two children slaughtered. Ota charged at the Force Publique captain, only to be disarmed, tortured and taken captive. He was bound and put up for sale in the slave market of the Baschilele people.”
Ota Benga was a member of the Batwa tribe, and stood about 4-foot-10—not circus-sideshow tiny, but obviously undersized for an adult male human. According to van de Graaf, Verner found him in the Baschilele slave market and purchased him for “salt and a length of cloth.”
In her book, Pamela Newkirk accuses Verner of overly dramatizing this event, elevating it from a mere transaction to a daring rescue from “cannibals.” In some of his previous writing, Verner had described the Baschilele as “friendly.”
Ota Benga did make it to St. Louis, along with several other pygmies whom Verner had acquired. They joined hundreds of other “primitive peoples” who were placed on display, including Igorots from the Phillipines, Eskimos from the Aleutian Islands, and American Indians—among them Geronimo, who signed autographs.
If this was intended as an expansion of the public’s scientific knowledge, that noble ambition was quickly sabotaged by the media of the day, no doubt in collusion with fair officials hoping to hype attendance.
The Igorots spent nearly a week on the front pages of newspapers across the country when it was announced that six dogs—supposedly their favorite food—would be provided for them as a “feast.”
Nor did the dietary habits of the pygmies escape conjecture. Wrote Newkirk:
Benga and his fellow Congolese … proved enormously popular from the start. Even beforehand, there had been sensationalized news reports about them. Days before their arrival, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had begun to exoticize them: ‘Red pygmies and black, the dwarf tribesmen, concerning whom less is known than that of any other people on the face of the earth, come to St. Louis the first of their kind who ever visited the Western Hemisphere.’
That article, said Newkirk, included a “long list of ‘Queer Facts,’ ” among them “They are reported to practice cannibalism” and “If caught young they are said to make excellent servants.”
Some of these erroneous reports. Newkirk added, may have been planted by Verner.
Whatever the source of this titillating background, Ota Benga’s filed teeth naturally attracted lurid speculation. An article in the Post-Dispatch’s Sunday magazine started out: “Have you seen Otabenga’s teeth? They’re worth the 5 cents he charges for showing them. Otabenga is a cannibal, the only genuine cannibal in America today.”
Even Scientific American weighed in by referring to Ota Benga’s alleged cannibalism, adding that his “coarse features” indicated “an intelligence of a very low order.”
Given all this, and the nearly constant attention from the fair-going masses, the St. Louis exposition must have seemed interminable for Ota Benga and the other “primitive peoples.” But it finally ended, and Verner then fulfilled an earlier promise to return Ota Benga to his native village, where he re-married. The situation with the Belgian overlords had become even more threatening, however (by that time, reports about the abuse suffered by Congolese natives were appearing regularly in the American press), and when Ota Benga’s second wife died from a snakebite, he asked Verner to take him back to America.
“Verner packed up several crates of minerals, plants, animals, and artifacts,” wrote Ann van de Graaf. “Ota Benga took a bow, some arrows, and a chimpanzee. By the beginning of August 1906, they were back in New York City.”
By then, Verner’s travels had all but exhausted the money he had received from the World’s Fair organizers, and he soon discovered that Ota Benga was becoming an expensive companion. At first, he arranged for him to stay at the Museum of Natural History in New York, where he “had free range of the museum building and helped the guards.”
At the same time, Verner was negotiating with museum director Hermon Bumpus for a job, as well as the purchase of some of his African artifacts. But after first expressing interest, Bumpus ultimately backed away from any arrangement. Meanwhile, Ota Benga was growing restless with his indoor existence, on one occasion attempting to escape by blending in with the crowd leaving the building.
At this point, Bronx Zoo director William Temple Hornaday offered to step into the breach. And Verner saw a way out of his predicament.
According to one later chronicler:
When Ota was presented to Director Hornaday of the Bronx Zoological Gardens, Hornaday’s intention was clearly to “display” Ota. Hornaday maintained the hierarchical view of races. Large-brained animals were to him … the best evolution had to offer. This believer in the Darwinian theory also concluded that there exists a close analogy of the African savage to the apes.” At first Ota was free to wander around the zoo, helping out with the care of the animals, but this was soon to drastically change.
Ota was next encouraged to spend as much time as he wanted inside the monkey house. He was even given a bow and arrow and was encouraged to shoot it as part of “an exhibit.” Ota was soon locked in his enclosure—and when he was let out of the monkey house, the crowd stayed glued to him, and a keeper stayed close by. In the meantime, the publicity began—on September 9, the New York Times headline screamed, ‘Bushman shares a cage with the Bronx Park apes.’ Although the director, insisted that he was merely offering an “intriguing exhibit” for the public’s edification, he ‘apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little Black man; [and] for the first time in any American zoo, a human being was displayed in a cage. Benga was given cage-mates to keep him company in his captivity—a parrot and an Orangutan named Dohong.
The larger racial implications of this spectacle were not lost on a group of ministers (of both races) who demanded an audience first with Hornaday, then with New York mayor George McClellan (who refused to see them, even though they gathered outside his office).
“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.”
With all of this, Ota Benga began to seem like a diminishing asset to Hornaday. The pygmy himself was becoming harder to handle, most visitors who were anxious to see him had already done so, and public opinion was shifting. Like any institution that depended on the patronage of the public, negative publicity was anathema, and a stinging editorial in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal only exacerbated the situation,
At first, Hornaday tried to get Verner to reclaim “his” pygmy, but the explorer was living in North Carolina and not inclined to replicate his previous predicament. So despite his annoyance with his ministerial tormentors, the zoo director finally agreed to allow the Rev. James H. Gordon to place Ota Benga in the Brooklyn-based Howard Colored Orphan Asylum.
Thus began the next chapter of Ota Benga’s odyssey, and brought Lynchburg—and Pierce Street—into the picture.
Although Benga demonstrated an aptitude for learning the English language and an apparent willingness to be socialized while at the orphanage, he was obviously an adult, and thus out of place among children. It was the Rev. William Henry Moses, a New York minister and Virginia Theological Seminary graduate, who suggested that he be moved from the orphanage to Lynchburg.
Virginia Seminary president Gregory Hayes had already become involved in the Pan African movement, due in large part to his acquaintance with John Chilembwe, a previous Seminary student who became a revolutionary leader in the nation of Malawi. When contacted by Moses, Hayes not only agreed to enroll Ota Benga in school, but make room for him at the house he and Mary and their children shared.
By all accounts, Ota Benga was happier there. The weather was warmer, the setting more rural than urban, and the Hayes’ home was surrounded by woods where he could wander with his bow and arrow.
Since Mary Hayes and Anne Spencer were close friends, it was only natural that Anne spent some time tutoring the visiting pygmy in English. But this was cut short when Gregory Hayes became seriously ill with the disease that would claim his life at the age of 44. Ota Benga was returned to the orphanage.
Four years later, however, he was back in Lynchburg, this time for six years. Shaun Hester has seen evidence that Benga may have actually lived for a brief time in the quarters above the Calloway & Spencer store on Pierce Street, a story often told by Chauncey Spencer. Pamela Newkirk disagrees. Either way, the little African must have been a common sight along the block as he traveled to Anne Spencer’s house for his lessons.
Overall, in fact, he seemed to be adjusting well to his new setting. He took classes in the Seminary’s elementary school, had his own room in the home of Mary Hayes Allen and her new husband (lawyer William Allen), and got a job at a local tobacco factory, where he amazed his supervisors and coworkers with his ability to scurry up to the rafters on ropes and bring down sheaves of tobacco leaves without needing a ladder.
Meanwhile, he had acquired something of an entourage. Wrote Pamela Newkirk:
Often barefoot, though wearing western clothes, Benga would lead a band of boys—including the three Hayes boys and Anne Spencer’s son Chauncey—and teach them the secrets of the forest, including how to shave the tips of hickory wood to sharp points to make spears, or how to make bows from vines. With Benga, the boys also learned how to gather blackberries and spear fish. The man they called Otto Bingo also taught them how to hunt wild turkeys and squirrels with a bow and arrow and how to trap small animals.
In Benga they found an open and patient teacher, a beloved companion, and a remarkably agile athlete who sprinted and leaped over logs like a boy. And with his young companions, Benga could uninhibitedly relive memories of a lost and longed-for life and retreat to woods that recalled home.
Benga’s special joy was participating in hog-killing season in Central Virginia, another echo of his past identity as a hunter. Still, his life was not completely idyllic, for he could not escape the racial attitudes of the time. On one occasion, he ventured into the wrong neighborhood and was pelted with rocks by white teenagers.
Eventually, however, the novelty of American life began to unravel, and it became painfully obvious that Ota Benga missed his native Congo.
“By 1916,” Newkirk wrote, “something had changed. Benga was no longer the eager friend of the neighborhood children. He had lost interest in their excursions to the surrounding woods to hunt or to fish in nearby steams. Many had noticed his darkening disposition, his all-consuming longing to go home. For hours he would sit alone in silence under a tree.”
For the door between Benga and his homeland had slammed shut. His tribe had been dispersed. Germany’s conquest of Belgium in the Great European War had pried loose the iron grip of Leopold on his colonies but left only chaos in his wake. Even if Benga could have found the money for passage back across the Atlantic, the war had temporarily halted all passenger shipping.
On the late afternoon of March 19, 1916, Ota Benga built a fire in the field between his adopted home and the Seminary buildings. He removed the civilizing caps on his pointed teeth and launched himself into a gyrating, spinning dance, chanting and singing mournfully in his native tongue as he twirled. That night, he entered a small shed behind Mammy Joe’s store on Garfield Street, where he had apparently hidden a pistol. Then, while Lynchburg slept, he fired a bullet through his heart.
Even in death, Ota Benga was restless. He was originally buried in the Old City Cemetery next to his benefactor, Gregory Hayes. Later, apparently because of a dispute between Mary Hayes Allen and the cemetery, the remains of both were exhumed and reinterred, most likely in the White Rock Hill Cemetery across town. That burial ground eventually fell into disrepair, and there is now no remaining marker for either Hayes or Ota Benga.
Once again, Ota Benga had become lost.
In 2006, Ann van de Graaf organized a Lynchburg symposium on Ota Benga’s life. Speakers included Phillips Verner Bradford, the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner and author of Ota Benga: “The Pgymy in the Zoo”; Carrie Allen McCay, daughter of Mary Hayes Allen, who wrote a book of poems titled Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, and Dibinga Wa Said, a native of the Congo who graduated from Harvard and was then the head of the Boston-based Pan African Council.
On his visit to Lynchburg, Said vowed to find Otas Benga’s remains and return them to Africa. Ultimately, he failed.
Said Carrie McCray: “Ota … had a profound influence on our mother and Harlem Renaissance poets and writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. They, too, were interested and joined the Pan-African movement, a movement uniting those persons of African descent from around the world.”
She also recalled her brother, Hunter, saying of Ota Benga: “He was like a father to me, my friend, my teacher, my hero, who knew more about the meaning of humanity than the missionary who brought him over here.”
That missionary, recalled grandson Phillips Verner Bradford, often talked about Ota Benga in his later years. And when he did, he sometimes wept.