Benga left no account of his own life, and so the details of his early years are not known with certainty. What scholars do know is based on multiple conflicting accounts from Samuel Phillips Verner, the former Presbyterian missionary who brought Benga to the United States.
Benga may have been born around 1883. He was raised in the Kasai River region of the Congo, then privately owned by King Leopold II of Belgium and called the Congo Free State. A member of the Mbuti people, Benga was of short stature—under five feet tall—and his front teeth were filed to sharp points. 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.
Bronx Zoo and Howard Colored Orphan Asylum
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 riled Benga. Jeering spectators constantly ridiculed and teased him, and whenever he ventured outside the Monkey 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 earned a modest income as a day laborer and tobacco factory worker.
During his years in Lynchburg, Benga tried to integrate into American culture and adopt local ways of life. When he hunted, he alternated bows and arrows with shotguns or rifles. He had a dentist cap his filed teeth to make his smile less startling. Around the seminary and throughout the city he became known by the less exotic name Otto Bingo.
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
Despite his efforts to assimilate, Benga struggled to make a new life in Lynchburg, and he became increasingly hopeless about his future there. He had lost contact with Verner, and, even if he had wanted to return to the Congo, he couldn't afford the cost of travel on hisown.
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 is born in the Kasai River region of the Congo.
ca. 1903 or 1904 - The territorial police force raids Ota Benga's camp in the Free State of Congo. His wife and children are killed. He is later captured and sold into slavery.
March 1904 - Samuel Phillips Verner, a former Presbyterian missionary, purchases Ota Benga at a slave market in the Congo.
1904–1906 - Ota Benga and Samuel Phillips Verner travel across Africa together and make several trips to the United States, including one in 1904 when Benga and eight other Mbuti people appear at the Saint Louis World's Fair.
September 1906 - Samuel Phillips Verner delivers Ota Benga to the New York Zoological Park, or Bronx Zoo, in New York City. There, Benga appears as an exhibition in a cage with an orangutan, several chimpanzees, and a parrot. The exhibition closes after a public outcry.
September 27, 1906 - Samuel Phillips Verner takes 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 - Ota Benga declines to return to Central Africa with Samuel Phillips Verner, deciding to make a new life on his own in the United States.
January 1910 - Ota Benga moves to Lynchburg 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 - Ota Benga dies by suicide in Lynchburg. He is interred in the Old City Cemetery there.
Cite This EntryAPA Citation:
First published: May 26, 2010 | Last modified: October 23, 2020
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..