Descendants of racist scientist back Norwich woman in fight over slave images

Forty-three descendants of Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century Swiss-American biologist whose white supremacist views emboldened proponents of slavery, "stand in solidarity" with the descendant of an enslaved man in a court case against Harvard University.

In 1850, Agassiz commissioned images of enslaved man Renty Taylor and Taylor's daughter Delia to support his belief in black inferiority, and these are believed to be the earliest known photographs of slaves.

Now, Norwich resident Tamara Lanier — Taylor's great-great-great-granddaughter — is suing Harvard, wanting possession of the images so they can be in the public domain.

The 43 descendants of Agassiz — who live in 14 states, and countries including Mexico, Scotland, Colombia and Jordan — are asking Harvard to relinquish the daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia to the pair's descendants, including Lanier. Agassiz was a professor of zoology at Harvard.

"For Harvard to give the daguerreotypes to Ms. Lanier and her family would begin to make amends for its use of the photos as exhibits for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused," they wrote in a letter to Harvard. "It is time for Harvard to recognize Renty and Delia as people. The daguerreotypes are, as Ms. Lanier has said, family photos."

They wrote that while they celebrate many of Agassiz' "groundbreaking contributions to natural science," they "lament the widespread damage he wrought with the theory of polygenism," which posits that different human races have different origins.

Agassiz's descendants feel the time has come for them to acknowledge the harm he caused, after ignoring "his role in promoting a pseudoscientific justification for white supremacy" for too many years.

Noting that Harvard used Renty's likeness on a textbook cover as recently as 2017, they questioned, "Does the University want to continue to gain from an image stolen from enslaved people?"

Lanier told The Day on Thursday that after she announced her lawsuit in March, her social media page "blew up" with messages from people she didn't know — including one from an Agassiz descendant.

She then had a conference call with Agassiz descendants around the world, and they said they wanted to write this letter but were waiting to hear from her.

"They just feel compelled to speak out and to say, 'That is not who we are,' and whatever they can do to repair the harm caused by their grandfather, they're willing to do it," Lanier said.

Her complaint against Harvard has been moved from Massachusetts Superior Court to U.S. District Court, but the complaint was amended to remove federal claims, so Lanier is looking to remand the case back to state court.

With the changes, Harvard has not yet filed a response to the complaint.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane said in an email statement, "We cannot comment on the subject of ongoing litigation, but Harvard has and will continue to come to terms with and address its historic connection to slavery. Harvard also strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects from around the globe within its museum and library collections."

She added that daguerreotypes are stored in a state-of-the-art room with ideal temperature for preservation, and that because of their "importance, condition, age, and rarity," a conservation team recommends viewing be limited to twice a year.

"This is something that should be in the public domain"

Lanier originally heard about "Papa Renty" from her late mother, but her efforts to verify him as her great-great-great-grandfather went far beyond oral history.

She said she went through census information, death records, probate records and cemetery information, but the "most compelling piece of information" she found was a death record placing her ancestor on the property of slave-owner Benjamin Franklin Taylor.

She has met others descended from Taylor's plantation, and she said they have collectively been driven to piece together what might have happened to other ancestors who were traded, probated or sold.

Lanier made the connection to the daguerreotype with the help of Rich Morrison, who owned the former Ice Cream Shop in Norwich and liked to do genealogical research. The late Ellie Reichlin, an employee of Harvard's Peabody Museum, had discovered the images in the museum's attic in 1976.

Lanier said the museum has 13 total photographs of enslaved people in its collection, including four or five of Renty and Delia. Asked what she would do with the images if she won the case and acquired them, Lanier said she and her family have talked about going to different museums and telling the story around the country.

"I know that this is something that should be in the public domain, and Harvard should not be profiting from the use of these images," Lanier said, "and beyond that, it's a matter of dignity and restoring the dignity to Renty."

Two of the attorneys representing Lanier — Josh Koskoff and Ben Crump — will be the keynote speakers at the New London NAACP's Freedom Fund Dinner at Ocean Beach Park next Thursday, to talk about how they got involved, the merits of the case and the implications of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

e.moser@theday.com

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