When people of color were placed in human zoos

Bruce Janu
8 min readJun 26, 2020


Ota Benga was an African man, kept in American zoo exhibits at the turn of the century.

If you went to the Bronx Zoo in 1906, you undoubtedly would have found yourself at the exhibit of Ota Benga, a man kidnapped from his home in Africa and displayed in a cage along with an orangutan. People threw him food, taunted him; applauded when he did something they liked. Although he was only on “display” in the Bronx for twenty days, he never went back home and never saw his wife and kids again.

Ota Benga’s story is tragic. But it was not unique.

Human zoos were a thing.

Displaying human beings for curiosity's sake was nothing new. In fact, emperor of the Aztecs Moctezuma kept human “oddities” in a zoo, which included people with albinism, hunchbacks, and other medical abnormalities. In the 16th century, the Vatican had a collection of human beings, too — so-called “savages” — kept in a human menagerie.

It was during the 19th century — — with the creation of “race” and the European and American colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific — — when human zoos became something different. Human zoos became an expression of the toxic racism that ran through European and American society. It provided a justification, not just for colonization abroad, but also for Jim Crow and segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa.

There is a precedent for this in America. P.T. Barnum kept an enslaved black woman named Joice Heth and claimed she was the “wet nurse” of George Washington. She was probably in her 70s at the time, but Barnum claimed that she was 161 years old. He reportedly had her teeth yanked out in order to make her look even older. When she died in 1836, Barnum sold tickets so people could watch her body be taken apart and viewed at a public autopsy. Over 1500 tickets were sold to that event and contributed to the idea that black bodies were different and “animalistic.”

P.T. Barnum Poster for Joice Heth, 1836.

The first full-scale exhibitions of human beings were found in Germany in the 1870s and, due to their popularity, quickly spread all over Europe and into the United States. The World Fair in Paris in 1889 brought the Eiffel Tower to the world, but it also had on display the “Negro Village,” which featured over 400 people captured during France’s colonial exploitations in Africa. In 1904, the World’s Fair in St. Louis had an even larger collection of humans from all over the world. There was even an event at the Fair called the “Savage Olympics Exhibition” in which people were forced to engage in their “primitive” activities while hundreds of people gawked.

Savage Olympics featuring Igorot people from the Philippines, on display at the St. Louis World Fair, 1904.

At Coney Island in New York in 1904, captured Filipino people were on display in a “village” to show the “primitive” nature of their lives. At this time, the Philippines were an American possession. After winning the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish American War in 1898 and breaking a promise to bring Independence to the Philippines, the United States fought a brutal and destructive war against Filipino rebels wishing to be free. After winning control over rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo in 1904, Filipino people were placed in “zoos” all over the United States in an attempt to justify American imperialism.

This image shows Filipino men and women in an “exhibit” at Coney Island, New York.

The “science” of race was created in the 19th century in order to justify slavery and colonization. Scientists proclaimed that there was a human “hierarchy,” and people with darker complexions were placed at the bottom of this hierarchy. Harvard professor of zoology proclaimed in 1873 that black people were a subhuman species that were a “degraded and degenerate race” that were “not of the same blood as we are.”

The categorization of humans into different “races” was used to support Social Darwinism and the “White Man’s Burden” that was popular at the time. This belief fueled the idea that white people were superior, and because of their superiority, it was the “burden” of the White man to teach civilization to “our little brown brothers,” as President William Howard Taft used to describe Filipinos. This became the primary justification behind the colonization of the Philippines and Hawaii.

The White Man’s Burden, The Detroit Journal, 1898 — Depiction of an American carrying a “savage” Filipino to school

As a result, human zoos became a staple in American and European societies well into the 20th century and even beyond World War II.

Photo from Expo ’58, where the Belgian government set up a display of a “Congo Village” in 1958.

With the race science that gained popularity in the 19th century, there was a white fascination with black bodies. Public autopsies of people of color were not uncommon. The institution of slavery “rationalised and normalised the use and abuse of black bodies.” Grotesque experimentations on black bodies were all-too-common, from not just the period of enslavement but well into the 20th century; most infamously with the “Tuskegee Experiment” where some 600 Black men were tested and treated for syphilis without their consent beginning in the 1930s. That experiment went on for 40 years.

Let us not forget as well that thousands of black people have been lynched in the United States, with their bodies left on public display and often photographed for souvenirs.

This history has not left us, as black and white bodies are viewed differently in the media and in sports today. In 1968, Olympic track and field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympics due to them giving the “Black Power” salute while on the medal stand. This occurred again in 1972 with two different runners, but white athletes who had made political statements at the Olympics were not disciplined in the same way. In addition, the whole issue regarding the kneeling of Colin Kaepernick during the national anthem is cloaked in a debate over the meaning of patriotism, but is more about who has control over his body. The argument that he “should just play football” is rooted in an idea that black bodies are not autonomous, but need to be controlled.

That goes back to the ideas of race first formulated in the 19th century.

One of the early proponents of putting people in zoos, or “ethnographic displays,” as they were known then, was Samuel P. Verner, a minister from South Carolina and self-proclaimed “explorer.” It was Verner who had taken to the habit of physically kidnapping people in Africa and bringing them to the United States to rent out or sell to zoos. The exhibit at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904 had many African people supplied by Verner.

St. Louis Post Dispatch, June 26 1904

Verner cloaked his money-making enterprise in religion, as he was a minister and missionary. Giving these primitive people a taste of civilization was his justification. Verner took advantage of the complete exploitation of the Congo region by the Belgians in order to capture and bring to America dozens of people who would then be placed on display.

Ota Benga was one of those people.

Benga was Mbuti, an ethnic group that lived in the Congo basin. The Mbuti people were commonly referred to as “pygmies” in the West. How Verner came to acquire Benga is not well known, as Verner’s story changed many times. Most likely, Ota Benga was purchased from human traffickers. Benga was then brought to the United States and forever separated from his wife and children. He was housed in the “Pygmy” display at the St. Louis fair, along with other people taken from Africa by Verner.

“Pygmy Village” from the 1904 World’s Fair, St. Louis.

He was then brought to the Bronx Zoo in 1906 where he was displayed under a sign that said “Missing Link.”

After pressure from African American ministers who rightly saw the treatment of Ota Benga as a travesty, he was removed from the zoo and placed in an orphanage in Virginia.

He spent 10 lonely years there, yearning to go home. After the outbreak of the First World War, that dream came to an end. He became depressed and no longer told the stories of home that had kept him going since arriving in America.

In the early morning hours of March 20, 1916, he broke into a shed under the cover of darkness because he knew a pistol was kept there.

And while everyone slept, he put a bullet through his broken heart.

Lynchburg, Virginia. A sign was placed up in 2017 commemorating the life and death of Ata Benga.

For further reading: