Norwich’s Lanier can pursue claims against Harvard over enslaved ancestor photos
A Massachusetts Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that Norwich resident Tamara Lanier’s court case against Harvard University can go forward as she seeks emotional damages for Harvard’s possession of 19th-century daguerreotypes of her enslaved ancestors.
Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Christopher Barry-Smith left open whether the court would be allowed to consider Lanier’s claim that Harvard should turn over the daguerreotypes of her ancestors, Renty and Delia, if she wins claims of damages for emotional distress.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last June that the Superior Court was correct in dismissing Lanier’s claim of property rights to the daguerreotype images. But the Supreme Court ruling said Lanier still could pursue claims of emotional distress inflicted by Harvard.
The higher court’s ruling put Lanier’s case back into Middlesex County Court, which held a hearing Thursday on Harvard’s motion to dismiss the remaining claims. After the hour-long session, Judge Barry-Smith denied the motion and asked attorneys for both parties to propose a schedule for trial.
The lawsuit, which Lanier filed in March 2019, pertains to images of her ancestors, "Papa Renty" and his daughter, Delia, which Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz commissioned in 1850 to "prove" the pseudoscientific, racist theory that racial groups lack a shared biological origin and are distinct. Renty and Delia, who were enslaved on a plantation in South Carolina at the time, were half-naked in the images.
Lanier argued that Harvard has profited from the images in using the daguerreotypes over the years, publishing them in books or charging outside entities for publishing them in books and using them in conferences on slavery.
Lanier’s legal team, headed by nationally renowned Civil Rights attorney Benjamin Crump, issued a statement following Thursday’s court ruling applauding Barry-Smith’s ruling “to allow this novel, important and historic case to move forward,” the statement said.
Lanier is arguing her family should obtain possession of the daguerreotypes, rejecting a statement by Harvard attorney Anton Mitlitsky during Thursday’s hearing that Harvard “would like these daguerreotypes to be housed at a place that would show them in context, display them in context and educate the public appropriately.”
Crump responded that because of Harvard’s nearly 175 years of possession of the daguerreotypes and alleged complicity with the institution of slavery, the university should not be allowed to decide how to tell the story of slavery and of Lanier’s ancestors. He compared the situation to allowing Nazis to educate the public on the Holocaust.
“Ms. Lanier has always wanted to have those daguerreotypes be used to educate the public on the evils of slavery,” Crump said in court Thursday. “What she has a problem with is that Harvard, because of their arrogance, believes that they are in the best position to use the daguerreotypes to be able to teach the public.”
Much of Thursday’s hearing centered on whether Lanier can continue to pursue possession of the daguerreotypes after the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled her property claims in the case were rejected for not being filed within the statutory allowed time period.
The Supreme Court allowed only Lanier’s claims of negligent emotional distress or reckless infliction of emotional distress to go forward. In response to questions from the judge, Lanier’s attorneys said, if allowed by law, they did plan to seek possession of the daguerreotypes as part of compensatory damages under those distress claims.
Harvard attorney Mitlitsky said he would dispute with that claim.
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