Harvard Sued for Profiting from Photos of Enslaved People

A Connecticut woman has filed a lawsuit against Harvard University on the grounds that the institution has “wrongfully” seized, possessed, and expropriated images of her ancestors. The images are of her family’s patriarch, known as “Renty,” and his daughter Delia, both enslaved in South Carolina in the 19th century, according to a suit filed in Massachusetts state court and obtained by The North Star.

Tamara Lanier is demanding Harvard return the photos, recognize her ancestry, and pay an undisclosed amount of money in damages, attorney’s fees, among other requests. The series of 1850 daguerreotypes, in which both appeared shirtless and captured from different vantage points, are considered the earliest images of enslaved individuals on US soil. Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz commissioned the pictures. The lawsuit indicates that Agassiz used the photos to “‘prove’ Black people’s inherent biological inferiority and thereby justify their subjugation, exploitation, and segregation.” The document notes that Agassiz — a Swiss American considered an influential scholar of Earth’s natural history in the 1800s — requested “Renty and Delia were stripped naked and forced to pose for the daguerreotypes without consent, dignity, or compensation.”

The lawsuit opens up with a quote from Maya Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she read during the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Lanier’s suit places blame on Harvard University in its entirety because the institution “elevated Agassiz to the highest echelons of academia and steadfastly supported him as he promoted and legitimized the poisonous myth of white superiority.” The suit adds that the Ivy League institution has yet to reckon with that “grotesque chapter in its history.”

The document states that Lanier, who has worked as chief probation officer in Norwich, Connecticut, is a direct lineal descendant of Renty, and that Delia is also Lanier’s ancestor. Renty is Lanier’s great-great-great-grandfather. According to the suit, Harvard has exploited Renty’s image at a 2017 conference and for other endeavors, including a book Harvard sells for $40 with his picture on the cover, called From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery, which explores the utilization of images in anthropology.

Despite Lanier’s attempts to get in touch with then-Harvard University President Drew Faust to explain her version of the pictures’ history, the suit indicated that Faust’s response to a letter from Lanier was “evasive and vague” and that Harvard never contacted Lanier for ongoing projects or interests “in verifying her lineage and connection to the daguerreotypes.”

Harvard’s spokesperson Jonathan Swain told the Associated Press that the university “has not yet been served, and with that is in no position to comment on this complaint.” At a news conference outside the Harvard Club in New York City this week, Lanier said she would tell “the true story of who Renty was” if given the original photos. She also hopes that her lawsuit will open a new discussion over race and history, AP added. “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,” she said.

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.