Harvard should return photos to slave descendants

Tamara Lanier of Norwich had an immediate feeling of kinship when, while researching her family’s history, she discovered a photograph of a man known as a family patriarch. The mid-19th century photo of an enslaved man named Renty, who was a man known as “Papa Renty” in her family’s stories.

“It was almost like we made eye contact,” Lanier told a reporter for USA Today.

The image of Renty, which is now controlled by Harvard University, also has come to be an iconic photograph of an enslaved person, widely used to illustrate talks and books about slavery in the U.S. And when Lanier came to know the story behind the photo, which is one of the earliest known photographs of an American enslaved person, many other feelings surfaced for her. Renty, a slave on a South Carolina plantation at the time the photograph was taken, was part of a Harvard scientist’s research aiming to prove the superiority of the white race.

Lanier is now suing Harvard, asking for the photos to be relinquished to her as the rightful owner. The suit also requests unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and legal fees from the well-heeled Ivy League university.

We urge Harvard officials, who have so far remained silent about the lawsuit and the photos of both Renty and his daughter, Delia, to do the right thing: turn over these ill-gotten photographs and their future use to Renty’s and Delia’s descendants.

This is hardly the first instance when an educational institution or museum demonstrated a deep lack of respect and insensitivity to marginalized peoples. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many aboriginal people were coerced into becoming sideshow acts or museum exhibits, for example. They were ogled at in cages or displayed as curiosities as if they were exotic animals.

One of the most startling of these incidents was when a Greenland family was brought to New York City in 1897 by North Pole explorer Robert Peary, put on display at the Museum of Natural History and forced to live in the museum’s basement.

Native people throughout the Americas continue to fight for the return of artifacts looted from them. They seek the repatriation of bones stolen in the name of scientific research from the most sacred tribal sites.

Similarly, African Americans with enslaved people among their ancestors, face the bleak realities of what life was like for their distant relatives. Because of the way in which their ancestors were viewed — subhuman and without individual rights — contemporary family members often are left without marked graves to visit. Vital records and documents, when any are available, illustrate a history of business transactions without any feeling for the families torn apart by slave sales.

While Lanier and her family members are fortunate that images of their ancestors exist, knowing that those images were taken without the permission of Renty and Delia is justifiably troubling. Knowing that the images were used for a cause that many slaveholders latched onto to justify the brutal practice of owning other human beings, also is terrible. Finally, knowing that the institution that backed these 19th century studies still controls the use of these family images is obviously upsetting.

Consider if this were your ancestors.

Anyone who has researched their family tree understands that despite the decades, sometimes centuries, that can separate us from our ancestors, a strong emotional and biological bond to these distant relatives remains. Gazing on a family members’ grave, an ancestral homestead or a relatives’ photograph provides a sense of connection.

Lanier and her family deserve to control their ancestors’ images. Harvard should turn over the photographs.

 

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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