Harvard Lawsuit Is ‘Precedent-Setting’ Case on History of Enslavement

This week’s lawsuit against Harvard University for the use of two daguerreotypes depicting two enslaved people in 1850 keeps gaining momentum — at a time when debates on reparations, the US role in enslavement, and the rise of white supremacy have taken center stage.

Connecticut resident Tamara Lanier claims to be the descendant of Renty and Delia — the father and daughter who were stripped to the waist and photographed from frontal and side profiles in what is believed to be the first photographed images of enslaved people in the United States. The lawsuit filed in Massachusetts state court underscores that the photos commissioned by late biologist Louis Agassiz were used to “prove Black people’s inherent biological segregation.” Lanier’s family and legal team are seeking the return of the daguerreotypes, recognition of Lanier’s ancestry, and the payment of an undisclosed sum in damages. Harvard has yet to establish talks with the plaintiffs, and the Ivy League school was not available for comment. For Lanier, however, it is not a matter of financial compensation. Instead, it is a history lesson for the institution.

“Don’t think of compensations in a monetary value,” Lanier told The North Star. “One way of compensation for me is that this case about the true story of slavery and the disenfranchisement of people of color.” The plaintiffs believe the case will be “precedent-setting,” meaning that this could be a new dawn in addressing enslavement in the US. Lanier said that she has received widespread support on social media, with positive comments from US users and abroad.

“The support has been overwhelming. This is not to say that there are not haters out there. But the responses have been supportive 24 hours after we gave our conference, even across the world,” she said. There are skeptics on the case, notwithstanding. Several experts consulted by The New York Times said that Lanier’s family would have “a hard time” proving the ownership of the daguerreotypes, while others argued that tracing families under slavery is a daunting, complex task. Both Lanier and attorney Benjamin Crump believe that those claims are unsubstantiated.

“I think that speaks to their ignorance because they don’t know the theory of this case and without having all of the facts,” Lanier said. “We’re confident we have a solid case here.”

Tamara Lanier and Benjamin Crump, Esq. (Courtesy of Ben Crump Law, PLLC).

Crump told The North Star, “Nobody said this was going to be easy. It wasn’t easy with Brown v. Board of Education, so we understand that the counterpart will search ways in the US courts to challenge us.” The lawyer stressed that the case is a milestone in and of itself, “no matter what the conclusion is. We still have to push this conversation forward, and I’m confident that Harvard will end up returning these daguerreotypes to the Lanier family.”

Lanier said she was also encouraged to embark on this endeavor thanks to the HEAR Act, enacted in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama, which allowed victims of the Holocaust to retrieve works of art or any other property confiscated or misappropriated by the Nazis. She pointed out that her case would prompt the same treatment for different cultures, while at the same time forcing “the discussion as to why the descendants of slaves are always the disenfranchised.”

Asked about what the family would do with the photos, Crump said he’s advising his client to take them on a national tour. “They can go to a lot of the cities where the descendants of slaves get to see these iconic, valuable photographs and have a discussion about white supremacy, intolerance, and hatred. You can take them to Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland, Houston, Los Angeles, where young black children can understand of history of white supremacy. Right now it’s relevant after what happened [during the white supremacist protests] in Charlottesville, Virginia [in 2017].”

In the meantime, Lanier said that this would be the re-teaching of history and truth-telling starting with Harvard and its affiliation with Agassiz. According to her, historians describe the Swiss American biologist “as the original thinker of hate science, the father of eugenics and apartheid. These are not my words, these are their thoughts.”

Lanier concluded, I really believe that I’m highly favored in this case. I believe that this is a story that has been ordained back in 1850 in order to be told today.”

About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.