Lawsuit: Harvard ‘shamelessly’ profits from photos of slaves | TribLIVE.com
U.S./World

Lawsuit: Harvard ‘shamelessly’ profits from photos of slaves

Associated Press
908343_web1_908343-25fff0ee57a3473d9a1b50d030d7fa0b
AP
In this July 17, 2018, photo, Tamara Lanier holds an 1850 photograph of Renty, a South Carolina slave who Lanier said is her family’s patriarch, at her home in Norwich, Conn. The portrait was commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose ideas were used to support the enslavement of Africans in the United States. Lanier filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, March 20, 2019 in Massachusetts state court, demanding that Harvard turn over the photo and pay damages.
908343_web1_908343-f8516768974c4978ab2f07f3e9da2d26
AP
This July 17, 2018 copy photo shows a 1850 Daguerreotype of Renty, a South Carolina slave who Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Conn., said is her family’s patriarch. The portrait was commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose ideas were used to support the enslavement of Africans in the United States. Lanier filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Massachusetts state court, demanding that Harvard turn over the photo and pay damages. (Courtesy of Harvard University/The Norwich Bulletin via AP)

BOSTON — Harvard University has “shamelessly” turned a profit from photos of two 19th-century slaves while ignoring requests to turn the photos over to the slaves’ descendants, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Connecticut, is suing the Ivy League school for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of images she says depict two of her ancestors. Her suit, filed in Massachusetts state court, demands that Harvard immediately turn over the photos, acknowledge her ancestry and pay an unspecified sum in damages.

Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain said the university “has not yet been served, and with that is in no position to comment on this complaint.”

At the center of the case is a series of 1850 daguerreotypes, an early type of photo, taken of two South Carolina slaves identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia. Both were posed shirtless and photographed from several angles. The images are believed to be the earliest known photos of American slaves.

They were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the U.S. The lawsuit says Agassiz came across Renty and Delia while touring plantations in search of racially “pure” slaves born in Africa.

“To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit says. “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.”

The suit attacks Harvard for its “exploitation” of Renty’s image at a 2017 conference and in other uses. It says Harvard has capitalized on the photos by demanding a “hefty” licensing fee to reproduce the images. It also draws attention to a book Harvard sells for $40 with Renty’s portrait on the cover. The, called “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery,” explores the use of photography in anthropology.

Among other demands, the suit asks Harvard to acknowledge that it bears responsibility for the humiliation of Renty and Delia, and that Harvard “was complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”

A researcher at a Harvard museum rediscovered the photos in storage in 1976. But Lanier’s case argues Agassiz never legally owned the photos because he didn’t have his subjects’ consent, and that he didn’t have the right to pass them to Harvard. Instead, the suit says, Lanier is the rightful owner as Renty’s next of kin.

The suit also argues that Harvard’s continued possession of the images violates the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

“Renty is 169 years a slave by our calculation,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, one of Lanier’s lawyers, said in an interview. “How long will it be before Harvard finally frees Renty?”

Lanier says she grew up hearing stories about Renty passed down from her mother. While enslaved in Columbia, South Carolina, the suit says, Renty taught himself to read and later held secret Bible readings on the plantation. He is described as “small in stature but towering in the minds of those who knew him.”

The suit says Lanier has verified her genealogical ties to Renty, whom she calls “Papa Renty.” She says he is her great-great-great-grandfather.

“My mother made sure that not only her children and her grandchildren, but everyone, knew the stories,” Lanier told The Associated Press. Asked what she would do if given the photos, Lanier said she wants the opportunity to tell “the true story of who Renty was.”

Lanier alleges that she wrote to Harvard in 2011 detailing her ties to Renty. In a letter to Drew Faust, then Harvard’s president, Lanier said she wanted to learn more about the images and how they would be used. She was more explicit in 2017, demanding that Harvard relinquish the photos. In both cases, she said, Harvard responded but evaded her requests.

The school has used the photos as part of its own effort to confront its historical ties to slavery. At the 2017 conference called “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History,” referenced in the lawsuit, Harvard printed Renty’s portrait on the program cover and projected it on a giant screen above the stage.

In the image, Renty stares hauntingly into the camera, his hair graying and his gaunt frame exposed.

Lanier, who was in the audience at the event, said she was stunned by a passage in the program that described the origins of the photo but seemed to dismiss her genealogical findings. It said that the photo was taken for Agassiz’s research and that “while Agassiz earned acclaim, Renty returned to invisibility.”

The suit alleges that “by contesting Ms. Lanier’s claim of lineage, Harvard is shamelessly capitalizing on the intentional damage done to black Americans’ genealogy by a century’s worth of policies that forcibly separated families, erased slaves’ family names, withheld birth and death records, and criminalized literacy.”

Categories: News | World
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.