Why These Early Images of American Slavery Have Led to a Lawsuit Against Harvard

Tamara Lanier claims the university has profited off the images of her ancestors

Tamara Lanier takes questions this week during a press conference announcing a lawsuit against Harvard University. Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

There is an image of a man most Americans have probably seen that has come to represent the institution of slavery. He’s bone-thin, big-eyed and shirtless. Without context, he personifies the nameless, storyless mass of people brought over to this country in bondage. But the man in the image has a name, Renty, as does his daughter, Delia, who also appears in a series of mid-19th-century daguerreotypes. We also know they were forced to strip naked and pose for the images commissioned by Harvard biologist and racial theorist Louis Agassiz in 1850 to “prove” the racial inferiority of black people.

Recently, Collin Binkley at the Associated Press reports, their story has opened up new conversation on race and history. This week, Tamara Lanier, a resident of Norwich, Connecticut, filed a suit in Massachusetts state court saying she is a direct descendant of Renty and accusing Harvard of “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of the images of Renty and Delia. The suit asks the university to acknowledge Lanier’s link to Renty and Delia, pay damages, and turn over the images; it also calls upon the university to acknowledge and condemn Agassiz’s racist actions.

Harvard has yet to comment on the case, stating it has not yet been served with papers, Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed reports.

“It is unprecedented in terms of legal theory and reclaiming property that was wrongfully taken,” one of Lanier’s lawyers, Benjamin Crump, says in an interview with Anemona Hartocollis of The New York Times. “Renty’s descendants may be the first descendants of slave ancestors to be able to get their property rights.”

According to Che R. Applewhaite and Molly C. McCafferty at The Harvard Crimson, Agassiz commissioned the images after touring a plantation in South Carolina, looking for enslaved people who were “racially pure”—aka born in Africa—to support his theory of polygenism, the now debunked idea that different human racial groups don’t share the same ancient ancestry. Renty and Delia were two of the subjects selected for the project.

At some point, the images were filed away, but in 1976, a researcher re-discovered the photos in storage. They were recognized to be among the oldest, if not the oldest, images of enslaved people in North America. Since then, the historic images have become almost iconic, appearing in documentaries, on book covers and on conference banners. The Harvard Peabody Museum, which currently holds the now-fragile daguerreotypes, tells The Harvard Crimson that the images are currently in the public domain, and the museum does not charge usage right. It does, however, charge $15 for high-resolution images of the daguerreotypes, which are requested about 10 times a year.

Lanier, a retired chief probation officer for the State of Connecticut, became aware of the images when she began researching her ancestry in 2010. She sent Harvard a letter in 2011 detailing her possible connections.

Lanier had grown up hearing family oral history about an ancestor named Renty Taylor or “Papa Renty” and through her work she believes she has connected her family to the man in the photograph, and by extension his daughter Delia.

Lanier’s genealogical case is a hard one to prove. Records of enslaved families sometimes include people not affiliated by blood. And a handwritten slave inventory list from 1834 that Lanier believes connect her to Renty is not definitive evidence, reports Hartocollis of the New York Times, since it’s not clear if two enslaved men on the plantation called “Big Renty” and “Renty” are related.

Then there is intellectual property law. Photographs are usually the property of the photographer, though Lanier’s suit claims that since the images were taken without the consent of Renty and Delia by Agassiz, he had no right to transfer them to Harvard and they should belong to their next of kin.

The current suit was inspired, in part, by a 2017 conference she attended on the associations between academia and slavery where Renty’s image was projected above the speakers.

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also attended the conference, tells Hartocollis he understands how Lanier must have felt. “That photograph is like a hostage photograph,” he says. “This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda — that’s what that photograph was taken for."

If Lanier did win, Crump, her lawyer, suggested in a press conference they would take the images on a tour across the U.S. before loaning them to museums.

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