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New York zoo officials apologize for 1906 display of African man who later died in Lynchburg

New York zoo officials apologize for 1906 display of African man who later died in Lynchburg

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NEW YORK (AP) — The organization that runs New York's Bronx Zoo is apologizing for racism in the zoo's past, including putting Ota Benga, a central African man, on display in the Monkey House in 1906.

“In the name of equality, transparency, and accountability, we must confront our organization’s historic role in promoting racial injustice as we advance our mission to save wildlife and wild places,” officials with the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement Wednesday.

The officials with the society cited two instances of “unconscionable racial intolerance,” including the treatment of Benga, a young man from the Mbuti people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was put on display for several days in September 1906. They noted that outrage from Black ministers “brought the disgraceful incident to an end.”

Benga, previously known as Mbye Otabenga, was brought to the United States in 1904 by former Presbyterian missionary Samuel Verner to be displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair. 

After the Bronx Zoo, Benga went to an orphanage in Brooklyn until 1910, when he was brought to Lynchburg by Hunter Hayes, then-president of Virginia Theological Seminary, now known as the Virginia University of Lynchburg. Benga lived with Hayes for six years until Benga took his own life on March 20, 1916 at the age of 32.

In September 2017, a historical highway marker dedicated to Ota Benga was unveiled at the intersection of Garfield Avenue and DeWitt Street in Lynchburg.

“He was so badly treated in New York at the zoo, and also in St. Louis, but in Virginia, here in Lynchburg, he was happy,” Ann van de Graaf, director of the now-defunct Africa House art gallery in Lynchburg and co-founder of the Ota Benga marker committee, said in March 2017. “… Here he found some peace I think.”

Benga, considered a “pygmy,” was put in the zoo display because of his 4-foot-9-inches-tall frame, which led many to believe he was “subhuman” and “the missing link,” Africa House volunteer Henry Fleming said in 2017. Benga was exhibited along with an orangutan.

In its statement Wednesday, the Wildlife Conservation Society officials also condemned the “eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism” promoted by two of its founders, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn Sr.

Eugenics, a movement promoting selective human breeding to weed out characteristics seen as undesirable, had many adherents in the early decades of the 20th century and was influential in shaping Nazi policies. Excerpts from Grant’s book “The Passing of the Great Race” were included in a defense exhibit for one of the defendants in the Nuremberg trials, the zoo officials said.

“We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them,” the officials said in the statement, which was first reported in The New York Times.

The chief executive of the conservation society, Cristián Samper, told the Times that the group had started digging into its history because of its 125th anniversary this year. Samper said that process, combined with conversations about racial injustice sweeping the country after the police killing of George Floyd, prompted the apology.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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