A Connecticut woman is suing Harvard University for commissioning and taking photos of her ancestors, who were enslaved, and profiting off of the photos taken in the 1850s on behalf of a racist professor who was trying to prove that Black people were inferior.
According to Reuters, Tamara Lanier claims that she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Renty, the Black man depicted in the photographs that are now under scrutiny. There are also photos of Renty’s daughter Delia, which were all taken as a part of a study by Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz. These photos represent some of the earliest known photos of enslaved Africans.
Lanier is accusing Harvard of honoring a pressor who studies “racist pseudoscience” and profiting off of the photos – kept at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnography at Harvard’s Cambridge, Massachusetts campus – which were taken without the subjects’ consent.
“What I hope we’re able to accomplish is to show the world who Renty is,” Lanier said at a news conference in New York, according to Reuters. “I think this case is important because it will test the moral climate of this country and force this country to reckon with its long history of racism.”
Lanier established a familial connection with Renty and Delia through family oral history and genealogical information. She had reached out to the university initially asking that they hand over the photos. When they refused, she escalated and filed a lawsuit.
“By denying Ms. Lanier’s superior claim to the daguerreotypes, Harvard is perpetuating the systematic subversion of black property rights that began during slavery and continued for a century thereafter,” her complaint read.
Agassiz met Renty and Delia while touring plantations in South Carolina. He was conducting research for a project that sought to support his view that Black people were a different species. This study, the lawsuit notes, was sanctioned by Harvard.
“To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit claims. “The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered.”
Since then, Harvard has continued to profit off of Renty and Delia’s pain, the lawsuit accused, including using Renty’s photo on the cover of a book that it sells for $40. The image was also used in a 2017 conference “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History,” where Harvard ironically tried to confront its own ties to slavery, the Associated Press notes.
“Renty is 169 years a slave by our calculation,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, one of Ms. Lanier’s lawyers, added in an interview. “How long will it be before Harvard finally frees Renty?”
Now Lanier is not demanding the right to ownership of the photos, but she is also seeking compensation for emotional distress, as well as a statement from Harvard acknowledging that it was “complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”
Harvard has declined to comment on the lawsuit and the allegations, with a spokesperson telling Reuters that it has not yet been served the complaint.