James Gordon: The Reverend Who Led the Protests Against Ota Benga’s Exhibition in a Zoo in 1906

Born in the United States, James H. Gordon was a prominent African-American minister and activist who lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best known for his courageous advocacy for social justice and civil rights, particularly his efforts to end the dehumanizing exhibition of Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo in 1906.

James Gordon: The Reverend Who Led the Protests Against Ota Benga’s Exhibition in a Zoo
Reverend James Gordon led the protests against Ota Benga’s exhibition and captivity in the monkey house. Photograph: Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum

Ota Benga’s journey from the forests of the Congo to the confines of a zoo cage is a tragic tale of exploitation and racism. Taken from his homeland by Samuel P. Verner, a missionary and anthropologist, Benga was first exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Subsequently, he found himself in the American Museum of Natural History before being displayed at the Bronx Zoo in 1906.

At the zoo, Benga – just under 5ft tall, weighing 103lb – was subjected to inhumane conditions, forced to live among chimpanzees and orangutans without any semblance of human dignity or respect.

It was in this degrading and demeaning spectacle that Reverend James Gordon entered the scene. A minister known for his activism and commitment to social justice, Gordon was appalled by the blatant racism and cruelty on display. He saw Ota Benga not as an exhibit, but as a fellow human being deserving of dignity and respect.

James Gordon: The Reverend Who Led the Protests Against Ota Benga’s Exhibition in a Zoo

James Gordon – then hailed as “one of the most eloquent Negroes in the country” – took what was a politically and socially unpopular stance against the Bronx Zoo’s popular exhibition Ota Benga. James Gordon publicly aligned himself with the city’s black clergy and pledged his support to stop the zoo’s exhibition. He deemed the well-attended show degrading, brutal and inconsistent with Christian values.

“We are frank enough to say we do not like this exhibition of one of our own race with the monkeys,” Gordon fumed. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

James Gordon: The Reverend Who Led the Protests Against Ota Benga’s Exhibition in a Zoo

Gordon’s impassioned plea for Benga’s humanity resonated with many, but there were those who defended the exhibition on pseudo-scientific grounds. Some argued that Benga, as a member of a “primitive” race, belonged in a cage for ethnological observation. However, Gordon remained steadfast in his belief that all human beings, regardless of race or background, deserved dignity and respect.

In defense of the exhibition of Benga in the zoo, an editorial in The New York Times wrote:

We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter. It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place from which he could draw no advantage whatever.

William Temple Hornaday, the zoo’s founding director and curator, also justified the exhibition on scientific grounds, stating, “I am presenting the exhibition purely as an ethnological exhibit.”

Ota Benga: the Sad Tale of the African Man Who Was Exhibited in a New York Zoo in 1906

Despite facing opposition and criticism, Gordon remained steadfast in his commitment to justice. Alongside other activists and concerned citizens, he tirelessly campaigned for Benga’s release from the zoo and advocated for his right to live with dignity and autonomy.

Ultimately, Gordon’s efforts bore fruit, as public pressure forced the organizers of the exhibition to end Benga’s ordeal. With Gordon’s assistance, Benga was released from the zoo and entrusted to his care.

Gordon placed Benga in the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, a church-sponsored orphanage in Brooklyn that Gordon supervised. He spared no effort in ensuring a life of dignity for Benga, even arranging for his teeth to be capped and enrolling him at a Baptist seminary school.

As the unwelcome press attention continued, in January 1910, Benga was sent to the Lynchburg Theological Seminary and College, a school noted for its all-black faculty and staff. There he lived with Mary Hayes Allen, the widow of the former president of the seminary, and her seven children.

Benga, who typically walked around barefoot, often took a group of local boys into the forest to teach them hunting skills, such as making bows from vines, tracking wild turkeys and squirrels, and setting traps for small animals.

However, as time passed and they all grew older, something changed. By 1916, Benga had lost interest in their hunting and fishing trips, and no longer seemed as eager to spend time with the neighborhood children. Decades later, some of his former young companions would recall a song he used to sing, one he had learned at the Theological Seminary: “I believe I’ll go home / Lordy, won’t you help me.”

Despite Gordon’s efforts to provide Benga with a semblance of normalcy, the trauma of his ordeal lingered. Unable to return to his homeland due to the outbreak of World War I, Benga fell into despair and ultimately shot himself in the heart on March 20, 1916, using a borrowed pistol.

He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in the Black section of the Old City Cemetery, near his benefactor, Gregory Hayes.

In the years since Benga’s death, efforts have been made to recognize and honor his memory. A historic marker was erected in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Benga lived out his final years.

Ota benga’s marker

After the tragic death of Ota Benga, Reverend James H. Gordon’s name faded somewhat from the public consciousness. While his courageous advocacy for Benga’s rights had captured the attention of many during the height of the controversy, Gordon returned to his ministerial duties and continued his work within his community.

Today, Reverend James H. Gordon’s legacy serves as a testament to the power of one individual to make a difference in the face of injustice.


The Guardian: The man who was caged in a zoo

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