Ota Benga Honored

Katherine Graves, Assistant Editor~

Ota Benga, a man who was featured as “pygmy” in the St. Louis World’s Fair and later lived in Lynchburg, will receive a Virginia Historical Highway Marker at the corner of Lynchburg’s Garfield Avenue and Dewitt Street at the historic marker’s dedication ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 16.

Speakers at the dedication ceremony will include Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of the Congo François Nkuna Balumuene, Lynchburg Mayor Joan Foster, Shaun Spencer-Hester, Hunter Hayes III and Pamela Newkirk, author of “SPECTACLE: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.” The ceremony will take place at the sign’s location from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

After the ceremony, there will be an exhibit on Ota Benga, a book signing by Pamela Newkirk, a performance by Hunter Hayes III and refreshments at the Africa House. The events are free to the public.

“In the past, people of European descent took Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to mean that they were the pinnacle of evolution and the darker races were lesser steps along the evolutionary ladder and treated them as less than human. We know now that that we are all one,” said Ann van de Graaf, artist, owner of the Africa House and the marker’s sponsor. “Ota Benga came from a people that knew this truth: that all people should be treated with respect. He suffered great injustice in America, but in Lynchburg he found a haven.”

Animal kingdom

Ota Benga posed at the Bronx Zoo. Retrieved from The Encyclopedia of Virginia. Circa 1906

Ota Benga was born Mbye Otabenga in the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1885. In 1904, a Presbyterian missionary, Rev. Samuel P. Verner brought Benga and others to the St. Louis World’s Fair to be displayed as “pygmies.” In 1906, Benga was displayed in the Bronx Zoo’s “Monkey House,” according to the text of the historical marker.

African American ministers rescued Benga and took him to a Brooklyn orphanage. In 1910, Benga came to Lynchburg to attend the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, which is now the Virginia University of Lynchburg.

While in Lynchburg, Benga worked at a local tobacco factory and lived at the college president Gregory Willis Hayes’ home. The African American poet Anne Spencer tutored him in English. Benga took local children, including Chauncey Spencer and Hunter Hayes, on hunting expeditions, said van de Graaf.

In her book, “Ota Benga under My Mother’s Roof,” Carrie Allen McCray quoted her brother Hunter Hayes, “Hunter said of Ota, ‘He was like a father to me, my friend, my teacher, my hero, who knew more about the meaning of humanity than the missionary who brought him over here.'”

In 1916, “despondent over his inability to return to Africa,” Benga committed suicide in Lynchburg, according to the text of his historical marker. Benga is buried in an unknown location in Lynchburg, said van de Graaf.

For more information, you can visit the event’s Facebook page.