Posted on July 29, 2020
Reckoning with Our Past,
Present, and Future
WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper sent a message to all WCS staff on Juneteenth, 2020. In this letter, he sought to cast a necessary light on our past, examine our present, and commit WCS to doing its part to help the long arc of the moral universe bend further toward justice.
As the United States has in recent months confronted the systemic racism in our nation, and as we at WCS recognize our 125th anniversary, we have been looking inward, examining our history, and asking if there is more we can do to ensure that persons of differing races, languages, cultures, and economic status feel welcome and enjoy equal opportunity at our zoological parks in New York City and our field conservation sites across the globe.
In the name of equality, transparency, and accountability, we must confront our organization’s historic role in promoting racial injustice as we advance our mission to save wildlife and wild places.
Two episodes from our history demonstrating unconscionable racial intolerance demand particular attention.
First, we apologize for and condemn the treatment of a young Central African from the Mbuti people of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo. His name was Ota Benga. Bronx Zoo officials, led by Director William Hornaday, put Ota Benga on display in the zoo’s Monkey House for several days during the week of September 8, 1906 before outrage from local Black ministers quickly brought the disgraceful incident to an end and the Reverend James Gordon arranged for Ota Benga to stay at an orphanage he directed in Weeksville, Brooklyn. Robbed of his humanity and unable to return home, Ota Benga tragically took his life a decade later.
We further apologize for and condemn bigoted actions and attitudes in the early 1900s toward non-whites—especially African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants—that characterized many notable institutions at the time, including our own.
Specifically, we denounce the eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism, writings, and philosophies advanced by many people during that era, including two of our founders, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sr. Excerpts from Grant’s book “The Passing of the Great Race” (with a preface by Osborn), were included in a defense exhibit for one of the defendants in the Nuremberg trials. Grant and Osborn were likewise among the founders of the American Eugenics Society in 1926.
We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them.
We recognize that overt and systemic racism persists, and our institution must play a greater role to confront it. As the United States addresses its legacy of anti-Black racism and the brutal killings that have led to mass protests around the world, we reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that social, racial, and environmental justice are deep-rooted in our conservation mission.
To that end, we will build on the goals of our diversity, equity, and inclusion plan approved by our board in February, 2019. We are hiring a Diversity Officer to work directly with the CEO and COO to coordinate the implementation of the goals and actions in this plan and report on our progress. We will continue working to ensure diverse pools of candidates for recruitment, promotion, and succession planning, including our board and leadership.
We will publicly acknowledge the mistakes of our past. Today, we are making all known records we have related to Ota Benga available online, as we have to researchers visiting our Archives. We will develop additional projects to make our history accessible and transparent, especially to outside writers and researchers.
Today we challenge ourselves to do better and to never look away whenever and wherever injustice occurs.
Letter from President and CEO Cristián Samper to WCS Staff
In the Media
The Wildlife Conservation Society Apologizes for Racist Aspects of Its Past
“We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions,” WCS President and CEO Cristian Samper told The New York Times, “or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them.”
In Our Archives
The WCS Archives collects, identifies, and preserves records created throughout the history of WCS. Among our collections are materials related to the Bronx Zoo’s exhibition of Ota Benga for several days in September 1906. We have digitized these and are now making them available online here. These materials originate from WCS Archives Collections 1001 and 1012. More information about these collections is available in their finding aids, which are accessible here.
Among the correspondents in this online collection are William Hornaday, who served as Bronx Zoo Director from the park’s opening in 1899 to 1926; Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn Sr., then WCS Secretary and Vice President, respectively; and Samuel Verner, who first forcibly brought Ota Benga to the United States in 1904 to be displayed at the St Louis World’s Fair and then brought him to the Bronx Zoo in September 1906.
We have previously made these materials available to researchers, and we are now putting them online here as a first step toward fulfilling WCS’s commitment to making this history accessible and transparent. These are the materials related to the Bronx Zoo’s exhibition of Ota Benga that researchers and WCS Archives staff have identified over the years. Should we identify any other related records, they will be added here.
*More information about collections of materials created by Madison Grant that we hold in our Archives is in our finding aids here. Our staff will continue to review these materials, and we are committing to digitizing and making public anything relevant to these subjects as it arises.
Related books that have referenced WCS Archives collections include:
- Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, by Pamela Newkirk (2015) [See also Newkirk’s “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo” The Guardian (June 3, 2015)]
- The Most Defiant Devil: William Temple Hornaday and His Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife, by Gregory Dehler (2013)
- Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant, by Jonathan Spiro (2009)
- Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, By Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume (1992)
Other recent articles that have explored Grant, eugenics, and the history of racism and conservation include:
- "When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist," The New Yorker, August 19, 2019.
- "White Nationalism's Deep American Roots," The Atlantic, April 2019. Also discussed on the NPR show Throughline in May 2019.
- "A Century Ago, America Built Another Kind of Wall," The New York Times, May 3, 2019.
- "Environmentalism's Racist History," The New Yorker, August 13, 2015.
- "The Measure of America," The New Yorker, March 1, 2004.
Additionally, in 2018, PBS's American Experience produced The Eugenics Crusade, a documentary that traces the influence of the early-twentieth-century eugenics movement, including Grant’s role in it.
For assistance with obtaining any of the resources listed here, please contact email@example.com.
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