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Documentary premieres on Norwich woman's lawsuit to obtain photos of enslaved ancestors

Norwich resident Tamara Lanier’s legal battle with Harvard University to seek the release of photos of her enslaved ancestor is featured in a new documentary film released online this week and premiered Friday in the GlobeDocs film festival hosted by the Boston Globe.

“Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard,” directed and produced by David Grubin, follows Lanier’s effort first to document her ancestry and then to recover for her family famous daguerreotype images of enslaved Africans “Papa” Renty and his daughter, Delia, from Harvard University and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Lanier sued Harvard in March 2019 after she said efforts to negotiate with Harvard to obtain the images had failed. But on March 1, 2021, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge dismissed the case, ruling that Lanier had not filed in a timely manner and that she herself was not wronged by what the judge acknowledged were the “horrific circumstances” in which the photos were taken.

Renty is Lanier’s great-great-great-grandfather. Lanier appealed, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments in the case Nov. 1.

The documentary is available for online viewing through Oct. 19 at www.freerentyfilm.com for $10.

Lanier said Wednesday she is excited about the film’s premiere on several levels. She said she has seen the “almost finished” version but won’t watch the final product until Friday night. She will attend the premiere at 7:45 p.m. at The Brattle in Boston with her two daughters, Megan Lanier Gomez and Shonrael Lanier, and Jean Jordan, president of the New London branch of the NAACP.

Lanier will join a question-and-answer session following the premiere.

“I am excited,” she said. “There’s a lot of people in the academic arena following this. What I hope for is a greater understanding of the case. There’s a lot of misinformation, a lot of people understand part of the argument of the case, but not wholly the case.”

The daguerreotypes were taken in 1850, when Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz traveled to South Carolina to photograph several enslaved Africans to “prove” his theories of white supremacy. During previous court hearings, Lanier’s lawyers offered vivid descriptions of how Renty and Delia were forced to strip and pose for the camera in a degrading manner.

While Agassiz’s research has been debunked, Harvard has retained possession of the images.

“The sentimental parts of the case and parts of the story really move people,” Lanier said, “to understand the history of property rights in this country and the exploitation of property rights.”

The documentary has “local flavor” for Norwich viewers, she said.

Lanier said when she first started to research her family history after her mother died, she knew of “Papa Renty” but didn’t know how to do genealogy searches. She stopped for lunch at The Ice Cream Shop, then a popular Main Street eatery in Norwich. Owner Richard Morrison offered to help, and by the next time she had lunch there, he had discovered the iconic images of Renty on the internet, then a fledgling search tool. Morrison was interviewed for the documentary but has since died.

“It’s a very beautiful part of the story,” Lanier said of Morrison, “one that (Grubin) was able to capture on film. He was a great guy, one of the MVP players on this team.”

Portions of an October 2020 online Massachusetts Superior Court hearing also were included in the documentary, and as it was a Zoom session, local spectators attending in support of Lanier’s case could be seen on screen.

Award-winning director and producer Grubin said he was introduced to Lanier’s story by his cousin, attorney Michael Koskoff, one of Lanier’s attorneys as she first started petitioning Harvard to release the daguerreotypes. Koskoff urged Grubin to document the entire process, anticipating it would lead to a major legal battle.

“As soon as you meet Tammy, you know you have a wonderful person you will be working with,” Grubin said.

Harvard officials, however, declined to be interviewed and did not reveal their arguments until the court hearings, he said.

What surprised Grubin was the response from the Agassiz family. Many descendants of Louis Agassiz sided with Lanier and requested Harvard release the photos to the Lanier family.

“You will get to hear their point of view,” Grubin said, “their highly tuned ethical point of view.”

He said the film touches on “so many” historical and current issues, from white supremacy to the cruelty and legacy of slavery to the concept of reparations and justice. With reparations, he said, many people “get hung up” on the concept of payment for past wrongs.

“But it starts with justice and repairs,” he said. “Should Tammy get these documents?”

c.bessette@theday.com

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