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Norwich woman thinks famous photo shows her slave ancestor

Our past has a profound impact on our present. When it's directly interwoven with major events in American history-as it is for Norwich native Tamara Lanier and her family-it can be a powerful and life-changing experience.

Over the past year Lanier, who is chief probation officer for the City of Norwich, has embarked on an ancestral journey centered around her great-great-grandfather, fondly referred to as "Papa Renty," an African slave, whom she grew up hearing stories about from her mother, Mattye Thompson Lanier, a retired teacher, who died this past year at age 86.

Mattye Lanier was a charter member of the Norwich branch of the NAACP, and her daughter has continued her mother's civil rights work as chairwoman of the state NAACP's Criminal Justice Committee.

Lanier feels compelled to share her story and says there isn't a better time than now, during Black History Month, "a brief time to honor and lift up our historical legacy," she adds.

Her mother, Lanier says, made sure her family knew the story of Papa Renty, which has been passed down from generation to generation for 160 years. The story is that Renty was a slave on the Taylor Plantation in South Carolina, and that he had a son named Renty Taylor, who took on the name Renty Thompson, after being sold south to the Thompson Plantation in Alabama. Renty was described as a man who was small in stature but larger-than-life to those who knew him. Self-educated, he taught others to read using a book called the "Blue Back Webster."

"I think what most resonated with my mom and me was his commitment to education and public service," Lanier says.

And so, when Lanier learned that "painful images of slavery" portrayed in daguerreotypes currently held by Harvard's Peabody Museum included ones she is convinced show her Papa Renty and his daughter, Delia, it was quite a shock. Even more disturbing, Lanier says, was how and why the photos were taken.

Louis Agassiz, a renowned Swiss-born scientist, used the photos, taken in the mid-1800s, to develop his theory that blacks were a separate and lesser species than whites and to promote race-based science as a way to justify slavery.

Shortly after her mother's death, Lanier made the connection between the daguerreotypes and her ancestors at -of all unexpected places - the recently closed Ice Cream Shop in downtown Norwich, where she routinely stopped for lunch.

One day, she was sharing her story with the owner, Rich Morrison, who told her he liked to do genealogical research, and asked if she minded if he took a shot at Lanier's background.

Six weeks later, Lanier stopped back for lunch, and Morrison informed her that he'd found pictures of slaves, including Papa Renty, on the Internet.

"I was shocked when I saw the pictures-how piercingly painful it was-you can see the burdens of slavery in their eyes, and posturing," she says. "But a lot was familiar about those pictures. There was a striking family resemblance.

"I've looked at horrible pictures of slavery before, but not when it was an ancestor, and I certainly view it differently," she continues. "It's very personal and brings you back to what they must have felt and were going through-what it must have felt like to be asked to disrobe and be photographed in the nude."

With the help of the Internet and Connecticut Historical Society genealogists, Lanier says that, like puzzle pieces, everything started to come together and fall into place.

As she sifted through U.S. Census information, she found the research was completely consistent with her mother's stories, directly linking her family to Renty Taylor.

"How ironic it is to know that the black African chosen by a scientist to be the symbol of ignorance and racial inferiority was truly an educated and self-taught man," she says. "My goal is to correct history and to share with all that ... Renty was an educated and exceptional person."

Another affirmation for Lanier was her discovery that a young woman named Sasha Huber has launched a campaign in Switzerland to denounce Louis Agassiz's science and has started a worldwide petition to change the name of Agassizhorn-one of the world's tallest mountains-to Rentyhorn, named after the slave Renty in the photograph.

"This race science affected people all over the world," Lanier points out. "Agassiz was the premier (proponent) of apartheid-this is what they used to justify oppressing people."

But the path from Lanier's present to her past also has presented some roadblocks.

The Harvard Peabody Museum is reluctant to state that there is definitive proof of kinship between Lanier and the slave named Renty in the daguerreotype.

And although the same image of Renty in Harvard's Peabody photo collection appears in "Delia's Tears" by Molly Rogers (Yale University Press, 2010)-a fictional account of seven South Carolina slaves-Rogers told Lanier she didn't feel the documentary evidence showed conclusively that the Renty in the photo and Papa Renty were the same man.

But Lanier is determined to convince Rogers otherwise when the two women meet on Feb. 23 at Yale University in New Haven, where Rogers will be giving a talk about her book. Lanier continues to set up meetings with both Harvard and Yale historians to present her case.

Lanier also has started writing a book about Papa Renty with both of her daughters. Shonrael, 25, wrote a storybook about Papa Renty when she was 8 years old, and Megan, 19, recorded her grandmother telling stories of her great-grandfather, which they are transcribing for the book.

Lanier's quest for formal acknowledgment of her relationship to Papa Renty goes beyond the personal-she says it also presents an identity question for all black people.

"We really don't know, as a black race, our ancestry and lineage as other races do," she says. "And as black Americans, the question we should all be asking ourselves is 'Who are we and what is our lineage?'"

Lanier stresses that due to the Internet, one doesn't have to be a historian to be able to research one's family roots.

"And for me," she says, "I'm so grateful to my mother, who held onto this story, and told it often, for me to put the value on finding out more and keeping the story of Papa Renty alive."

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