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Human Zoo Exhibits: Scientific Racism in the 20th Century

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Ota Benga was kidnapped from Africa and exhibited in a zoo.

Ota Benga was kidnapped from Africa and exhibited in a zoo.

A century ago, humans were put in zoo displays to “prove” that white people were the pinnacle of evolution and others were of a lesser standing.

As noted by Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr., of the Association for Psychological Science in The Observer: “The beginning of the 20th century was a time in which the tools of psychological and anthropological science were used to measure racial differences, with expectations from many that the obtained measures would support ‘learned opinion’ that the white race was superior to people of colour.”

Prominent Supporters of Eugenics

The so-called science of eugenics attracted the approval of some top thinkers and philosophers such as Charles Darwin and Immanuel Kant. Georg Hegel offered his opinion that people of African descent had no “sense of personality; their spirit sleeps.”

The British scientist Sir Francis Galton traipsed about Africa measuring the size of peoples’ skulls and other features; he decided the mental ability of the local inhabitants was “two grades” below that of Anglo-Saxons.

Perhaps, one day, an alien culture from some advanced civilization will visit Earth and examine the human population in the same way. They might capture some of us “primitives” and take us back for exhibition in their zoos. Sounds a bit outlandish doesn’t it? But, precisely this scenario played out on our own planet almost within living memory.

Ota Benga Captured and Imprisoned

Ota Benga was born around 1881 into a tribe of African pygmies. His family lived in the forests along the Kasai River in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

His sad life story is told in the 1992 book, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume.

The authors tell how he survived a raid carried out by the Force Publique, a gang of murderous thugs employed by King Leopold II of Belgium, who claimed the Congo as his personal property.

Benga was held captive until he was sold to the missionary and explorer Samuel Phillips Verner, the grandfather of one of the authors of the book cited above.

Samuel Verner had a commission to provide a group of pygmies who would be put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. The pygmies were included in an exhibit the fair’s publicity department called, “permanent wildmen of the world, the races that had been left behind.” A freak show for sophisticated white folks.

Ota Benga showing his sharpened teeth.

Ota Benga showing his sharpened teeth.

Pygmy Becomes a Zoo Attraction

After the fair, in 1906, Ota Benga began living at the Bronx Zoo. At first, he helped the animal keepers and often spent time in the Monkey House.

The zoo’s director, William Temple Hornaday, immediately saw the potential for a crowd pleaser. Benga was encouraged to sling his hammock in the Monkey House and hang out with the primates. The visitors flocked to the zoo, spurred on by the sign Hornaday put up which read, “The African Pygmy, ‘Ota Benga.’ Age: 28 years. Height: 4 feet 11 inches. Weight: 103 pounds . . . Exhibited each afternoon during September.”

The New York Times sent along a reporter. On September 9, 1906, under the headline “Pygmies Rated Low on Human Scale’ ” the following appeared:

“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 non-scientific 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.”

Black Churches Free Ota Benga

The news of the exhibit spread quickly and reached the attention of a number of Black preachers. James H. Gordon, Chairman of the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference said, “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes.”

As Mitch Keller related in the August 6, 2006, edition of The New York Times under the title “The Scandal at the Zoo”: “To the Black ministers and their allies, the message of the exhibit was clear: The African was meant to be seen as falling somewhere on the evolutionary scale between the apes with which he was housed and the people in the overwhelmingly white crowds who found him so entertaining.”

Within a few days, the Bronx Zoo closed the attraction and Ota Benga passed into the care of African-American churches.

Filipino Tribes Put on Exhibition at Fair

Ota Benga was not the only human to suffer the indignity of public display.

With the widely held belief that whites were superior to "coloured" peoples as background, another exhibit was set up at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 to show Indigenous tribes in their “natural” surroundings.

Greg Allen reported for National Public Radio that the largest of these so-called living exhibits “was the Philippine village, a 47-acre site that for seven months in 1904 became home to more than 1,000 Filipinos from at least 10 different ethnic groups. The biggest crowd-drawers were the so-called primitive tribes―especially the Igorots, whose appeal lay in their custom of eating dog.”

A contemporary poster advertised the Igorot village as “The Call of the Wild” where visitors can view “Head-hunting, Dog-eating Wild People . . . from the Philippine Islands.”

A young married Filipino couple on display for the gawping crowds.

A young married Filipino couple on display for the gawping crowds.

Distorted Image of Filipinos

A goal of the display, as outlined in a 2006 documentary by Noel Izon and Stephanie Castillo, was to demonstrate how the colonization of the Philippines brought civilization to primitive peoples. This was achieved by showing Filipinos in all stages of development from the nearly naked Igorot to the sophisticated and educated city dwellers.

An article originally published in the Journal of the American Filipino Historical Society describes how “there was evident use of trickery on some occasions in order to gather tribal people for the Exhibit.”

They were to dance to their drums, behave as Americans expected savages to behave, and, of course, eat their dog meat. In other words, they were encouraged to reinforce already existing negative stereotypes about small, brown people.

As the documentary, 100 Years of Filipinos in America, puts it, the exhibit “Profoundly influences racial and cultural attitudes towards Filipinos for many generations.”

An assessment echoed by Jose D. Fermin in the 2004 book, 1904 World’s Fair: The Filipino Experience. Fermin wrote that the affair stigmatized Filipinos and called it “a disgrace that is still felt after a hundred years.”

Bonus Factoids

  • Doctor Jerry Bergman at the website writes that Ota Benga, “was never able to shed his ‘freak’ label. Employed in a tobacco factory in Lynchburg, Virginia, Ota Benga grew increasingly depressed, hostile, irrational, and forlorn. Concluding that he would never be able to return to his native land, in 1916 Benga committed suicide by shooting himself with a borrowed pistol.”
  • During the World’s Fair, the City of St. Louis contracted to provide the Filipino exhibit with 20 dogs a week, presumably rounded up strays. But, the supply did not meet the demand, so residents were asked to bring in dogs to feed the Igorots. This led to dog poaching causing anger and upset in the community.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor