Lynchburg, Ota Benga, and the Empowerment of the Pygmies: an International Conference, October 25 – 27, 2007, Lynchburg, VA.

The program for the conference can be found at http://vul.edu/events_otabenga.html.

The theme of the conference revolves around Ota Benga, a Pygmy who was brought to America, by explorer/missionary Samuel Phillips Verner to be part of an exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. When the World’s Fair closed Ota Benga returned to the Congo where he helped Verner collect plants and specimens that Verner hoped to sell to the Museum of Natural history in New York. Upon their return to the U.S., the Museum was not able to pay them for the artifacts. Running out of funds, Verner left Ota Benga at the Museum where he lived for a period of time until he was taken to the Bronx Zoo. There, Mr. William Temple Hornaday, director of the zoo, exhibited Ota Benga in a cage with chimpanzees. The exhibit attracted crowds of visitors and was well documented in the New York newspapers of the time. A group of black ministers, incensed at this outrage, managed to get him released in their custody. He was taken to live in an orphanage in New York but later was able to persuade them to take him to the Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg (now VUL). He lived in the President’s house and took classes at the school. He also worked in a tobacco factory and did odd jobs. However, growing despondent because he was not able to secure funds to return to Africa, he shot himself in the heart, on the Spring Equinox, 1916. He is buried in Lynchburg in an unmarked grave.

Through Ota Benga’s compelling life story the Conference will provide an open environment for discussion on issues of past exploitation of vulnerable human populations and the resulting present day effects.

Topics include Western intervention and occupation of Africa in the late nineteenth century, the impact of American Missionaries on Africa and the current situation of the Pygmies in the Congo

By bringing together humanities scholars from throughout the U.S., indigenous people from the Congo, foreign embassy personnel, students and the general public the Conference will examine these issues from different cultural perspectives.

The conference is sponsored by the Virginia University of Lynchburg, in conjunction with Lynchburg College, Randolph College, Sweet Briar College, the African Congress of the Pygmies, and Amazement Square Children’s Museum.

Major funding for the conference is provided by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities as part of the We the People initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Dolan Fund for Peace and Justice.