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Massachusetts judge dismisses Norwich woman's lawsuit over photos of enslaved ancestors

A Massachusetts Superior Court judge has dismissed a Norwich woman’s lawsuit against Harvard University seeking release of photos of what she says are two of her enslaved ancestors, ruling that Tamara Lanier failed to file suit in a timely manner and was not herself wronged by the “horrific circumstances” in which the photos were taken.

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 daguerreotype images of a man named Congo “Papa” Renty and his daughter, Delia, both slaves in South Carolina. Lanier says she is a direct descendant of Renty and Delia.

The photos were commissioned by famed Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz in 1850 of several slaves from a South Carolina plantation as part of his research to show that Africans were inferior to whites.

In his ruling dated March 1 and posted Wednesday, Judge Camille F. Sarrouf Jr. agreed with Harvard’s attorneys in the university’s motion to dismiss that Lanier did not meet the three-year time limitation on filing her claims and that there is a long-standing precedent that the subjects of photographs do not own the images or negatives produced.

“Lanier asks the court to recognize a possessory interest in light of the horrific circumstances in which the photographs of Renty and Delia were taken,” Sarrouf wrote. “Fully acknowledging the continuing impact slavery has had in the United States, the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be.”

Sarrouf also ruled that Lanier cannot claim that her civil rights were violated by the violations against Renty and Delia. First, Sarrouf wrote that civil rights claims are governed by a three-year statute of limitations and “the alleged conduct took place in the nineteenth century, which is well beyond the three-hear statute of limitations period.”

Sarrouf also agreed with Harvard that Lanier cannot claim a civil rights violation “on behalf of Renty and Delia,” because her own civil rights were not violated.

Lanier said Wednesday evening that she had not yet read the 15-page ruling thoroughly, but she was heartened by her attorneys’ immediate commitment to appeal the ruling to higher court. Lanier objected to the concept that Harvard should retain ownership of the photos even though Renty and Delia did not consent to being ordered to strip for intimate, closeup photographs of their naked bodies.

“You don’t give child pornography photos back to the pedophile photographer,” Lanier said. “They were forced to pose against their will.”

Lanier said she felt the judge entered the Oct. 20 hearing on the motion to dismiss with a “closed mind,” hearing only limited arguments.

Joshua Koskoff, one of Lanier’s attorneys, said the dismissal ruling was not surprising, because “groundbreaking” cases mostly are decided by higher courts. The attorneys will file an appeal in the Massachusetts Appellate Court. Koskoff said eventually, he expects the case to be decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Noted civil rights attorney Ben Crump, also representing Lanier, issued a statement Wednesday vowing to appeal to a higher court.

“We remain convinced of the correctness of Ms. Lanier’s claim to these images of her slave ancestors and that she will be on the right side of history when this case is finally settled,” Crump said in the statement. “Like the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, which was not ultimately decided by the lower court but by the high court, this proper dispute is not over yet. It is past time for Harvard to atone for its past ties to slavery and white supremacy research and stop profiting from slave images. African American slave descendants were robbed of their family histories. This is an opportunity to put that right for one family.”

A statement by Harvard Wednesday called the daguerreotypes “powerful visual indictments of the horrific institution of slavery” and acknowledged Renty and Delia were photographed against their will.

“We are hopeful the Court’s ruling will allow Harvard to explore an appropriate home for the daguerreotypes moving forward that allows them to be more accessible to a broader segment of the public and to tell the stories of the enslaved people that they depict,” the Harvard statement said.

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies that the statement by Harvard was issued by the university.

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