When the Bronx Zoo exhibited a man in an iron cage

Ota Benga in an undated Library of Congress photo.

Story highlights

  • In 1906, crowds flocked to see an African youth exhibited in iron cage at the Bronx Zoo
  • Pamela Newkirk: It's a stark example of the history of racial attitudes and how it still affects society today

Pamela Newkirk, director of undergraduate studies at New York University's Arthur Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of the new book "Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga," published by HarperCollins, and editor of "Letters from Black America," published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)During September of 1906, nearly a quarter of a million New Yorkers flocked to the Bronx Zoo to behold a young African named Ota Benga -- a so-called "pygmy" -- exhibited in an iron monkey house cage.

Protests by a coterie of ministers and a small cadre of elite whites met a wall of resistance as the exhibition of the 103-pound, 4-foot-11 Ota Benga was quietly sanctioned by zoological society officials, the mayor, scientists, the public and many of the nation's newspapers, including The New York Times.
"Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes," trumpeted a New York Times headline on September 9.
    "The human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale," said the article. "But to the average nonscientific person in the crowd of sightseers there was something about the display that was unpleasant."
    Pamela Newkirk
    Still, up to 500 people at a time flocked to the monkey house to see the boyish Benga, who often sat on a stool in stupefied silence. The spectacle inspired sensationalized headlines from New York to California and across Europe, and zoo attendance during September doubled over the previous year. On one day alone, 40,000 people visited the zoo, according to figures it released.

    Shedding light on racial attitudes

    Days after Benga's debut in the monkey house, Times editors were baffled by the ministers' objections, saying: "We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter."
    They added: "Ota Benga, according to our information, is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit."
    This chapter from our not-so-distant past sheds light on prevalent and pernicious racial attitudes that were embedded in science, academia, government and the media. It both illuminates the racial progress that has been made in a century, but also the residue of attitudes that linger still.
    More than a century later, the mass incarceration of young black males, many for low-level drug offenses, and the pervasive police killings of unarmed men have only recently received sustained national attention. And while the televised spectacle of videotaped police shootings has heightened public awareness, many Americans had for decades normalized -- even celebrated -- the criminalization of black men, just as a desensitized public sanctioned the caging of Ota Benga.
    It may be easier for Americans to agree that police officers should be equipped with cameras than to address racial views that have stealthily seeped into every segment of society.
    Four years before Benga's exhibition, "The Basis of Social Relations: A Study in Ethnic Psychology," published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in New York and London as part of the Webster Collection of Social Anthropology, said that Africans were "midway between the Oran- utang [sic] and the European white." It added: "The African black presents many peculiarities which are termed 'pithecoid' or ape-like."

    Callous disregard

    Indeed, it was a callous disregard for Benga's humanity that resulted in him being exhibited at the zoo. Benga was first brought to the United States by Samuel Verner, an avowed white supremacist from South Carolina and former African missionary. Two years earlier, he had been commissioned by organizers of the St. Louis World's Fair as a special agent to bring back so-called "pygmies" -- the diminutive forest-dwellers from Central Africa who some scientists at the time inaccurately considered examples of the lowest form of human development.
    Before embarking on his mission, Verner secured letters of introduction from U.S. Secretary of State John Hay; William McGee, the president of the American Anthropological Association who oversaw the anthropology department for the fair; and David Francis, the former governor of Missouri and secretary of the Interior who was president of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, commonly called the St. Louis World's Fair.
    Verner also secured the support of Belgian Secretary of State Chevalier Cuvelier, who was, Verner said, "next to the King, the most influential of all the men I should have to deal." At the time, the Congo Free State was the exclusive property of Belgian King Leopold II.
    With the imprimatur of U.S. and Belgian officials, an armed and determined Verner went hunting for "pygmies," a term that once referred to monkeys and that some today consider derogatory. Ota Benga and eight other young Congolese males of undetermined ages were exhibited on the St. Louis fairgrounds where they were poked, prodded and otherwise harassed by curious spectators. Two years later, Verner would temporarily turn Benga over to the zoo, where he became a global sensation.
    As hundreds crowded around his cage, Benga often sat in sullen silence or mocked the menacing mob. At other times, he distracted h