Bronx Zoo apologizes for displaying African man in 1906 exhibit
© Library of Congress | George Grantham Bain Collection

The Bronx Zoo on Wednesday issued an apology for the institution’s racist history, including displaying a Central African man in the zoo’s 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 (WSC), which operates the zoo, said in a public statement.

The WSC first cited two incidents that demonstrated “unconscionable racial intolerance,” including the treatment of a young Central African man named Ota Benga.

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Benga was from the Mbuti people of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. He was forced from his home and brought to the United States by a “disreputable businessman” to be exploited at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

The Bronx Zoo director at the time, William Hornaday, put Benga on display in the Monkey House for several days in September 1906.

Local Black ministers immediately condemned the incident, according to a report from The New York Times. 

“Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” Rev. James Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, is quoted as saying. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

However, Hornaday dismissed their objections in a letter to then-New York City Mayor George B. McClellan as “notoriety-seeking,” according to a copy released from the WSC archives. 

The exhibit was closed following the public backlash and Gordon arranged for Benga to stay at an orphanage he directed in Brooklyn. 

Benga was unable to return to Africa due to travel restrictions caused by the outbreak of World War I and took his own life in 1916, “a victim of the racism that robbed him of his humanity.”

“We further apologize for and condemn bigoted actions and attitudes in the early 1900s toward non-whites—especially African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants—that characterized many notable institutions at the time, including our own,” the group said in the statement. 

This is the first formal, public apology for the treatment of Benga from the conservation society, which was founded as the New York Zoological Society in 1895.

The second incident included in the apology was for the “eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism, writings, and philosophies” of two of the WSC’s founders, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sr. Both men were among the founders of the American Eugenics Society in 1926.

Grant’s book “The Passing of the Great Race,” which included a preface from Osborn, was used by Nazis on trial at Nuremberg “to justify their actions” during the Holocaust, according to the WSC.

“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 statement said. “We recognize that overt and systemic racism persists, and our institution must play a greater role to confront it.

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"As the United States addresses its legacy of anti-Black racism and the brutal killings that have led to mass protests around the world, we reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that social, racial, and environmental justice are deep-rooted in our conservation mission," it added.

In a letter to staff last month, the WSC announced plans to make public all digitized archives related to Benga online so that researchers and writers could have access to the group’s history.

Cristián Samper, the chief executive of the conservation society, told The New York Times that the group had started looking into its history prior to its 125th anniversary in 2020.

That discovery process, as well as widespread protests about racial injustice following the police-involved death of George Floyd, spurred the group to write a letter to staff on Juneteenth, the annual celebration of the end of U.S. slavery.

“We really needed to look at this, to own up to this. It’s a tragic thing that we did,” Samper said.