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Before you go! Ota Benga
As you know, my creative involvement with the story of Ota Benga brought me to visit a community in Lynchburg, Virginia dedicated to celebrating its living generational memory of him.
In a single year, from spring 2022 to spring 2023, what I encountered as an informal, long-standing, deeply knowlegeable and conscientious group strikingly transformed and formalized itself into The International Ota Benga Memorial Committee with new and renewed goals and initiatives.
Along with Ann Van de Graaf, my first point of contact in Lynchburg, Dr. Myra Gordon leads the committee on its expansive mission. As an out-of-town member, I’ve already been astounded more than once to find myself witnessing - actually being in the midst of - certain turning points, whereby a century old history promises a new living chapter involving Lynchburg and the Congo, for a historic and fitting postscript in honor of Ota Benga.
More on that soon.
In the meantime, in answer to Dr. Gordon’s call (sharing with you here), I just gave to this campaign for upkeep of the cemetery where Ota Benga is understood to have been buried. I hope you’ll do the same!
The 100/$100 Campaign for Historic White Rock Cemetery
Ota Benga is the African man infamously known as, "The Pygmy in the Zoo." In 1904, he was purchased in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by a Presbyterian missionary and brought to the United States for display at the World's Fair in St. Louis. Later, Ota was moved to the Primate House of the Bronx Zoo, where he was billed as "the missing link," too animal-like to be human and too human-like to be an animal. Literally, hundreds of thousands of zoo-goers went to see Ota. It is reported that the crowds taunted him, spit at him, made demeaning requests of him, and displayed every other form of degrading behavior imaginable. Outraged Black ministers in New York rescued Ota and sent him to Lynchburg, VA where the second president of the Virginia Seminary, the illustrious Gregory Willis Hayes, took Ota in. Despite efforts to help Ota, he was badly traumatized by his situation as a spectacle and extremely depressed about not being able to return to the Congo. On the Vernal Equinox in 1916, Ota Benga killed himself by gunshot wound to the head. Ota Benga has been resting in the Historic White Rock Cemetery in Lynchburg, VA for 107 years.
The International Ota Benga Memorial Committee of Lynchburg, VA has launched a 100 person/$100 campaign to raise money for the maintenance of the Historic White Rock Cemetery. It is the first African American cemetery in Lynchburg, VA. The cemetery was created in 1885 when Jackson Street United Methodist Church purchased a 23-acre parcel of land. Prior to that time, the bodies of black people were buried on their own land or simply placed in boxes and put into "the bottom" of the Old Lynchburg Cemetery, pretty much in an unmarked mass grave.
Today, there are over 4,000 graves in Historic White Rock Cemetery. Some of the most amazing and inspiring people are buried there, people who achieved great things with their lives, despite the oppression of the Segregated South. We want to hire some black teenage boys to help us cut the grass and right heads stones in the cemetery.
Black teenage males have a dismal unemployment rate. Hiring them to work in the cemetery will give the Benga Committee an opportunity to engage with them and share the lessons that can be learned from the stories of people resting in the cemetery. We will be able to provide them some summer earnings, as well as developmental workshops. The International Ota Benga Memorial Committee is composed of an impressive array of university professors and administrators, professionals, entrepreneurs, pastors, community leaders, historians, and artists who will mentor and lead workshops. We will work side by side with our youth.
We will also use some of the money to begin fixing the roof of the Munson House on the grounds of the Historic White Rock Cemetery. The Munson House was donated by Laura Munson to Jackson Street United Methodist Church to serve as the cemetery office and Ota Benga Education and Exhibit Center. The Munson House is in very serious disrepair, and working on the roof is the first step in renovating it.
Clearly, there is a lot to be done. But, the International Ota Benga Memorial Committee has been called to lead the effort to preserve this historic cemetery and honor these ancestors, most notably Ota Benga and Gregory Willis Hayes. Our efforts will be a tide that lifts all boats.
Would you please help us in this 100/$100 campaign? Will you be one of the 100? Do you know others who might help us?
All donations will be formally acknowledged and they are tax-deductible. Checks should be made payable to: Jackson Street United Methodist Church with "The White Rock Cemetery" noted in the memo line.
Checks should be mailed to: Historic White Rock Cemetery c/o Jackson Street United Methodist Church P.O. Box 3374 Lynchburg, VA 24503
Thank you for your consideration,
Dr. Myra Gordon, Committee Co-Chair and International Spokesperson