Judge hears arguments in Norwich woman's suit against Harvard over slave photos
Attorneys for a Norwich woman suing Harvard University to release the 170-year-old photos of her enslaved ancestors made emotional pleas to a Massachusetts Superior Court judge Tuesday not to dismiss the case and allow Harvard to use legal technicalities to perpetuate alleged racism.
Tamara Lanier filed suit in March 2019 against Harvard and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology after she said she made repeated unsuccessful requests to Harvard to turn over the 1850 images of a man named Congo “Papa” Renty and his daughter, Delia, both slaves in South Carolina. Lanier is a direct descendant of Renty and Delia.
The 90-minute Zoom video hearing Tuesday before Judge Camille F. Sarrouf Jr. featured emotional arguments by Lanier’s attorneys calling Harvard’s ownership of the daguerreotypes a perpetuation of a heinous crime, in which Renty and Delia were forced to strip naked and pose as part of Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz’s attempt to prove Africans were inferior.
Judge Sarrouf reminded hearing attendees they needed to remain quiet as if they were in an actual courtroom. He added that the video platform allowed the 173 attendees into the hearing, many more than would have been allowed in a physical courtroom with COVID-19 spacing restrictions.
Attorney Anton Metlitsky, representing Harvard and Peabody Museum, argued that Lanier’s suit should be dismissed for several reasons, including a long-standing rule that subjects in photographs — or 19th century daguerreotypes — do not own the photos, but the photographers do.
Metlitsky said reversing that standard would be catastrophic to news outlets documenting world events, including heinous acts of war or crimes, without consent of the people in the images. Many images show multiple subjects, complicating the question of ownership by the subjects, he said.
Attorneys Benjamin Crump and Joshua Koskoff, representing Lanier, said they are not claiming that Renty and Delia should have owned the images because they were the subjects, but that they were victims of a crime. Harvard, the attorneys said, has profited from the results of that crime.
“If Black people had not been reduced to property under the law in 1850, we would not be here today,” Koskoff said.
Crump graphically described that Renty and Delia were ordered to pose for photographs, with shots of Renty’s head, shoulders, arms, legs and penis. Delia’s breasts, waist and butt were photographed.
“Let’s imagine the duress of Renty and his daughter Delia when these images were taken,” Crump said. “Let’s imagine the result if Renty and Delia had challenged the photographs, as Lanier is. They would have been beaten. They would have been starved. They would have been beaten to death. It is clear they had no choice.”
Crump argued that Harvard should not have the right to retain “the fruits of their crimes,” and Lanier’s family is the only rightful owner of the images.
Metlitsky disputed the claim that Harvard has profited from the images and said Harvard and the Peabody Museum are educational institutions documenting the history of slavery and racism.
Metlitsky also argued that Lanier’s case should be dismissed, because the three-year statute of limitations had passed before she filed suit. Metlitsky said Lanier learned of her relation to Renty and Delia in 2011. In 2014, Peabody Museum had made public statements in a newspaper article asserting Lanier had not proven that ancestry. Metlitsky said she should have filed the suit no later than 2017.
Lanier’s attorneys argued that she had been working with Harvard to attempt to resolve the dispute, and she made the demand for the photos in 2017 when efforts failed. They said the landmark case should not be dismissed on such a technicality.
Crump called Harvard’s technical arguments for dismissal an “extreme case of intellectual justification of discrimination.”
Lanier’s suit recounted the history of leading scientist Agassiz’s rise through the scientific community at Harvard, Lanier’s connection to Renty and Delia, and what she called "An Opportunity for Harvard” to end the exploitation.
In the suit, Lanier claimed Agassiz commissioned the images "as part of his quest to ‘prove’ black people’s inherent biological inferiority and thereby justify their subjugation, exploitation and segregation.” Agassiz visited several South Carolina plantations seeking slaves to be photographed with the new technology. Renty and Delia were among them.
The suit said Renty and Delia were stripped naked and forced to pose “without consent, dignity, or compensation.” She argued Harvard “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."
At the close of Tuesday's hearing, Judge Sarrouf said he will reread all the case briefs and motions and listen to the hearing recording before making a decision on the dismissal motion.
Lanier and numerous supporters attended Tuesday’s video court hearing, and after the hearing closed, several participants lingered in the Zoom platform and thanked and congratulated Lanier for pursuing the case. They gave a chorus of “Free Renty” and “Black Lives Matter” before signing off.