Bronx Zoo apologizes for putting African man on display in 1906

Bronx Zoo officials this week apologized for putting a central African man on display in the zoo’s Monkey House 114 years ago.

The man, Ota Benga, was taken as a slave from his indigenous Mbuti people in the Congo and sold to an American man — who brought him to New York, where he was placed in the exhibition for 20 days in September 1906.

Zoo officials on Wednesday described it as an act of “unconscionable racial intolerance.”

“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,” the Wildlife Conservation Society’s President and CEO Cristián Samper said in a statement.

The exhibition was met with swift condemnation from local black community leaders at the time, and Benga was then removed. Reverend James Gordon, who led the protests against the zoo, eventually convinced it to allow him to take Benga to an orphanage for black youth that he operated in Weeksvile, Brooklyn.

Benga later relocated to Virginia, but without the opportunity to return home due to travel complications during World War I, he committed suicide a decade after the exhibition in 1916.

“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,” Samper continued in the statement, which was published along with a letter of apology he sent to staff on Juneteenth.

Samper, who is Latino, also apologized for WCS founders Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, who promoted what Samper called “eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism.”

The CEO said the organization decided to finally address its disturbing past while preparing for its 125th anniversary this year and as the civil unrest over the police killing of George Floyd continues to grip the nation.

Samper in his letter to staff pledged to “publicly acknowledge the mistakes of our past” and digitize its records relating to Benga, which were also placed online Wednesday.

He said the organization would hire a “diversity officer” to work alongside its executives and expand training to nurture a diverse and tolerant workforce.

“Today we challenge ourselves to do better and to never look away whenever and wherever injustice occurs,” Samper said.

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