Norwich woman says Harvard 'shamelessly' profits from her slave ancestors' photos

Norwich resident Tamara Lanier claims that Harvard University has "shamelessly" profited from iconic images of two 19th century slaves who she says are her ancestors.

In a lawsuit filed in Massachusetts state court Wednesday, Lanier says Harvard has ignored her requests to turn over the photos. She asks the university to relinquish them to her as the rightful owner, and pay unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and legal fees. She is being represented by law firms in Boston, Bridgeport, New York and Tallahassee, Fla.

Lanier, a retired Connecticut chief probation officer, claims she is suing Harvard "for its wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation of photographic images of the patriarch of her family — a man known as Renty — and his daughter, Delia, both of whom were enslaved in South Carolina."

A Harvard spokesman said in an email response Wednesday afternoon: "The University has not yet been served, and with that, is in no position to comment on this lawsuit filing."

Lanier said in a telephone interview with The Day on Wednesday evening, following a news conference in New Yok City, that the story of both her family’s history and Harvard’s role in perpetuating stereotypes and debunked myths of African-Americans’ heritage "is just so encompassing." She said she is trying to get Harvard to recognize and embrace the story that has been in her family for 160 years.

"It involves so much," Lanier said of the lawsuit. "I think this complaint will force this country to re-evaluate history, because so much is left to be told about Harvard and its complicity and (Harvard researcher Louis) Agassiz and his hate-science that has been reflected all over the world."

Lanier claims the images were commissioned in 1850 by Agassiz, Harvard’s leading scientist, "as part of his quest to ‘prove’ black people’s inherent biological inferiority and thereby justify their subjugation, exploitation and segregation."

Renty and Delia were stripped naked and forced to pose for the daguerreotype images "without consent, dignity, or compensation," the suit claims. She blamed Harvard, which she said "elevated" Agassiz to high positions and supported him "as he promoted and legitimized the poisonous myth of white superiority."

The suit claims that Harvard discovered the daguerreotypes in 1976 and realized their value as the earliest known photographs of slaves and "commenced a decades-long campaign to sanitize the history of the images and exploit them for prestige and profit." She claims Harvard requires contracts and a "hefty licensing fee" to anyone wishing to use the images and threatens lawsuits for use of the images without permission.

"In other words," Lanier states, "Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world with an endowment of $40 billion, has seen fit to further enrich itself from images that only exist because a Harvard professor forced human beings to participate in their creation without consent, dignity or compensation."

The suit is divided into five parts that recount the history of Agassiz’s rise through the scientific community at Harvard, Lanier’s connection to Renty and Delia, and what she calls "An Opportunity for Harvard."

Agassiz embraced polygenism, the theory that racial groups derived from different origins and thus are "categorically distinct," the suit explains, along with the establishment by Harvard of a scientific school and Agassiz’s appointment to the school. Polygenism was rebuked a decade later by Charles Darwin’s "Origin of Species," the suit said, but Harvard continued to support Agassiz.

Agassiz in 1850 visited several South Carolina plantations seeking slaves to be photographed using the new technology, and Renty and Delia were among the group, Lanier claims.

"To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens," Lanier’s suit says. "The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered."

Lanier recounts stories her mother, Mattye Thompson-Lanier, told of Renty Taylor, whom she called "Papa Renty" — a strong-willed South Carolina slave who had taught himself and others to read using a copy of Noah Webster’s famed children’s spelling book. The surname Taylor was his master’s last name, a common practice, the suit said.

Renty’s grandson, Renty Taylor III, was transferred to a plantation in Alabama and had nine children, including Lanier’s grandfather. Lanier writes that after her mother died in 2010, she embarked on a tedious genealogical project to uncover details of her ancestors, which led her to the daguerreotypes at Harvard.

"Harvard cannot unlive its history," Lanier writes in the suit. "But it could have chosen to face it with courage and honesty; and it could have tried to repair some of the damage inflicted in its name."

The suit says a Harvard Peabody Museum researcher "stumbled" across the daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia, which made national headlines as the earliest known photographs of slaves. Harvard made no attempt to locate descendants, the suit says. And the university continues to profit from its ownership of the photos.

Lanier claims Harvard has refused to respond to her claims of ancestry with Renty and Delia, and after she was interviewed in 2016 for a story in the Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, she received a call from the editor that the story had been "killed" due to "concerns the Peabody Museum has raised," the suit says.

In 2017, Harvard used the image of Renty on the cover of a 30th anniversary edition of the $40 book "From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery."

The suit says Lanier attended a 2017 conference hosted by Harvard on universities’ connections to slavery that included Renty’s image projected on a large screen and used on the program’s cover, with a statement describing it as an image associated with scientific research Lanier calls "dishonest" and "manipulative."

On Oct. 27, 2017, Lanier wrote to Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust explaining her research that confirmed her as Renty’s and Delia’s descendant, and formally requested the daguerreotypes be "immediately relinquished" to her. She writes in the lawsuit that Harvard’s response was "nonresponsive and deceptive."

The suit claims Lanier is the rightful owner of the daguerreotypes and that Harvard’s ownership was "acquired through fraud and/or other misconduct." The suit seeks unspecified compensatory damages "for emotional distress, humiliation, anxiety and other emotional pain and suffering," punitive damages and legal fees.

c.bessette@theday.com

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