Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism

The missing link was unveiled to the public during the St. Louis Worldќs Fair in 1904. The scientific community devised a “human zoo” consisting of thousands of indigenous people who had been imported from remote regions in Africa. Darwin’s influential theories on evolution had been published less than a half a century before, and many legitimate media outlets and professional scientists viewed this display as a groundbreaking extension of his work. These Africans were studied and exploited as members of the lowest rung on the evolutionary ladder – a link between the monkey and the fully developed human species. Human Zoos explores this shameful and largely forgotten chapter of racist history.

One of the earliest proponents of this twisted science was esteemed anthropologist William McGee. He propelled the notion that the black race was the closest relative of the apes, a theory that was widely embraced by his colleagues. In fact, McGee’s theories were drawn from his deeply embedded prejudices against the African American and the Jewish populations. Under the protective umbrella of respectable science, he nurtured a campaign of unspeakable dehumanization.

Two years after the St. Louis exhibit, nearly a quarter of a million visitors bore witness to a similar display at the Bronx Zoo. Only the religious community stood in protest and protested the abuses suffered by these human beings.

In addition to Pygmies from the African Congo, the community also imported natives from Japan, South America and the Philippines. One large sector of the scientific community placed these subjects to a series of tests to measure their intelligence, physical features and pain thresholds. Others studied the brains of the subjects who had deceased.

The film memorably explores how even the most admired and dependable fields of science were burnished by such blind hatred and discrimination.

Human Zoos presents an astounding piece of history that has fallen under the radar. The film argues that the legacy of that history is far from a distant memory. Modern-day political movements promote a perverted view of Darwinism in order to deepen divides and promote their cause of white supremacy.

Directed by: John G. West