Education

Iowa State pulls plaque honoring racist zoo director, considers new policy

Wintersteen: His actions were 'indefensible, reprehensible and racist'

Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Gazette File Photo)
Beardshear Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Gazette File Photo)

At a time of national reckoning over U.S. treatment of its black citizens, Iowa State University is joining the institutions reconsidering those honored via plaque, statue, building or degree.

Specifically, Iowa State has removed a bronze plaque commemorating William Temple Hornaday, or W.T. Hornaday, who attended Iowa State in the 1800s and received an honorary master’s degree in 1903 before curating a racist exhibit as director of the Bronx Zoo, according to a message this week from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen.

The exhibit, as recounted in a 2006 article in the New York Times and on NPR, involved a Congolese man named Ota Benga made to live in the Monkey House section of the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan in September 1906.

The exhibit was stopped after a black clergyman, the Rev. James H. Gordon, vigorously protested, saying his race was “depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes. We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

Hornaday remained unapologetic, though, commenting — according to the Times — “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.”

A decade later, Benga committed suicide, according to Wintersteen’s message.

Ten years after that, Iowa State commemorated Hornaday on its campus with a bronze plaque that read, “For his contributions to zoology and conservation which have been of immeasurable benefit to America. It was on this campus as a student, June 1873, that ‘I Found Myself…’.”

Hornaday lived from 1854 to 1937. He served as the first Bronx Zoo director from 1899 to 1926. He attended Iowa State from March 1872 to November 1873, before receiving his honorary master’s degree in 1903 and his plaque in 1926.

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Iowa State’s Parks Library is investigating the campus’ “stated reasons for the creation of the plaque in 1926, so that we can understand it historically as part of our own campus history,” according to Wintersteen, who called his actions and attitudes “indefensible, reprehensible and racist.”

“This issue highlights a broader question about the need for a policy and process to more systematically address questions about historical naming and honors,” she said.

Wintersteen said she has created a committee to do just that — review renaming principles and policies at other universities and recommend a formal ISU renaming policy and process.

Through that policy, Iowa State will examine the Hornaday plaque and other historic naming and honoring decisions “in a consistent and well-thought-out process with well-defined standards that can be applied when issues arise.”

The campus also is planning to create a website associated with its library to provide historical information and resources related to its decisions and honorees.

“Once the formal renaming policy has been adopted, a permanent decision will be made regarding the Hornaday plaque,” Wintersteen said. “And the conferral of Hornaday’s honorary degree will be reconsidered.”

The campus, additionally, will review all honorific naming on campus and recommend other potential naming reconsiderations.

Wintersteen — whose campus was rocked in the fall with racial tensions propelled by acts of racism — in May issued a statement of outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a white police officer.

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“The hurt and pain of this reverberates throughout communities across our country, including among our Iowa State community, and it is understandable that all eyes turn toward their local police departments for answers,” Wintersteen said in her statement.

She praised her campus’ police department for its “record of professionalism — including racial intelligence and bias training and other professional development — under Chief Michael Newton’s leadership.”

“Tragedies like this must end,” she said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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