Benga was born around 1883 and raised in the Kasai River region of the Congo, then owned by King Leopold II of Belgium and called the "Congo Free State." Reportedly a member of the Badi Pygmy tribe, he was approximately 4 feet, 9 inches tall and weighed about 100 pounds. His front teeth were filed to sharp points in the traditional manner of Congolese Pygmies.
Benga's wife and two children, along with many others in their tribe, were killed in a raid on their camp by the territorial police force sometime around 1903 or 1904. Benga was captured and later sold into slavery in a distant village. In March 1904, Presbyterian missionary and adventurer Samuel Phillips Verner discovered Benga for sale in the village's slave market. Verner, who was on a special mission to bring Pygmies from the Congo to the St. Louis World's Fair, purchased Benga's freedom for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.
Travels with Verner
Benga helped Verner collect artifacts and specimens and procure rubber and ivory for resale. Like the fictional duo Robinson Crusoe and Friday, Verner and Benga became close friends, with Benga once telling Verner he would commit suicide if Verner did not take him on a return trip to America.
In 1904 Benga was largely responsible for convincing eight Pygmies to travel with him and Verner to the St. Louis World's Fair, where they became the premier "anthropology" exhibition.
Bronx Zoo and Howard Colored Orphan Asylum
During that September, tens of thousands of people came to see the famous Pygmy who shared a cage with an Asian orangutan, several chimpanzees, and a parrot. Zookeepers designed a matinee "exhibit" almost devoid of educational content and heavy on P. T. Barnum–style entertainment. The intense and unrelenting spotlight eventually riled Benga. Jeering spectators constantly ridiculed and teased him, and whenever he ventured outside the Primate House, he required police protection from the crowds.
On September 27, 1906, Verner delivered Benga to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. Benga spent the next three years there and at the orphanage's satellite farm on Long Island, New York. In 1907 Verner offered to take Benga with him back to the Congo, but Benga declined, having decided to make a new life on his own in America.
Final Years in Lynchburg
The close-knit seminary community embraced Benga. He lived in the heart of campus, first with widowed store owner Josephine Anderson and later with Mary Rice Hayes, Gregory Hayes's widow and a former seminary president herself. Benga tried attending elementary classes at the college, but he gradually gave up his formal education for other pursuits. He did chores and odd jobs in exchange for room and board, and he earned a modest income as a day laborer and tobacco factory worker.
Benga spent most of his free time in forests and the countryside. He often hunted with a small band of young admirers, including Mary Rice Hayes's three sons and Chauncey Spencer. He taught them to hunt, fish, and gather wild honey just as he had done in the forests of the Congo. Benga also befriended Chauncey's mother, Anne Spencer, a poet who taught at the seminary. He and Spencer shared a special affinity for the natural world, and he was a frequent visitor to her renowned garden, Edankraal, on Pierce Street.
Suicide and Burial
On March 20, 1916, Benga committed suicide in a stable behind Josephine Anderson's house. A coroner's inquest determined that he died by self-inflicted pistol shot to the left breast. A group described as the "Baptist Ministers Conference, colored" hired a local black funeral home to embalm Benga and oversee his funeral and burial.
On Wednesday, March 22, Benga's funeral was held at Diamond Hill Baptist Church in Lynchburg, followed by interment in the Old City Cemetery. Strong and persistent oral history suggests Benga's body was removed sometime later to Lynchburg's White Rock Cemetery. No documentation of disinterment or reburial has been found, and no grave marker has survived in either cemetery.
ca. 1883 - Ota Benga, reportedly a member of the Badi Pygmy tribe, is born in the Kasai River region of the Congo.
ca. 1903 or 1904 - The wife and two children of Ota Benga, an African Pygmy living in the Kasai River region of the Congo, are killed in a raid on their camp by the territorial police force. Benga is later captured and sold into slavery.
1904–1906 - Ota Benga and Samuel P. Verner travel across Africa together and make several trips to the United States, including one in 1904 when Benga and eight other Pygmies appear at the St. Louis World's Fair.
September 27, 1906 - Samuel P. Verner delivers his friend Ota Benga to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn, New York. Benga spends the next three years there and at the orphanage's satellite farm in Long Island, New York.
1907 - Samuel P. Verner offers to return his friend Ota Benga to his native Congo but Benga declines, deciding to make a new life on his own in the United States.
January 1910 - Ota Benga moves to Lynchburg, Virginia, to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. He becomes friends with the seminary's president, his wife, and their kids, as well as Lynchburg poet Anne Spencer.
March 20, 1916 - His attempts at assimilation having failed, the African Pygmy Ota Benga commits suicide in Lynchburg. He is interred in the Old City Cemetery there.
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First published: May 26, 2010 | Last modified: July 19, 2014
Contributed by Ted Delaney, the archivist and curator of the Old City Cemetery Museums & Arboretum in Lynchburg. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and coauthor of Free Blacks of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1805–1865. He has consulted and written extensively about African American history and genealogy, as well as grave marking and mortuary customs in nineteenth-century Virginia..