Court rules that Lanier can sue Harvard for emotional distress over enslaved ancestor images
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday ruled that Tamara Lanier of Norwich can sue Harvard University for emotional distress over the university's treatment of her over photos of her enslaved ancestors, meaning she'll get her day in court.
But the ruling doesn't mean she gets possession of the daguerreotypes.
The lawsuit, which Lanier filed in March 2019, is over images of her ancestors Renty "Papa Renty" and Delia, which Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz commissioned in 1850 to "prove" the pseudoscientific, racist theory of polygenism, 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 photos.
Repeatedly calling Thursday a historic day, Lanier said Renty's dignity "was crushed to the earth by Harvard, but today, it rises." She called the ruling an indictment of Harvard and how the university treated enslaved people, their descendants and her family.
She said the decision is "a jump-off point for all descendants of slavery to achieve legal redress."
The Middlesex County Superior Court on March 1, 2021, granted Harvard's motion to dismiss the case, but Lanier's attorneys appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which heard oral arguments Nov. 1. The court was supposed to rule within 130 days, but on March 14, judges waived the period to allow more time for review.
The 91-page ruling from the court, which includes the 7-0 decision and concurring opinions, is highly critical of Harvard but concluded the lower court was correct in dismissing Lanier's property claims, and determined she has no property interest in the daguerreotypes. Lanier still said it is her goal to get ownership of the images.
"Harvard cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims and disregarded her requests, despite its own representations that it would keep her informed of further developments," the SJC said in its ruling.
Spokespeople from Harvard didn't respond to an email from The Day seeking comment. But the Associated Press reported that spokesperson Rachael Dane said the university is still reviewing the decision, and that she stressed the original daguerreotypes are in archival storage.
"Harvard has and will continue to grapple with its historic connection to slavery and views this inquiry as part of its core academic mission," Dane said in a statement. "Harvard also strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects from around the globe within its museum and library collections."
A museum researcher at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology discovered these daguerreotypes in the attic of the museum in 1976. Decades later, Lanier concluded through ancestral research that she is a descendant of Renty and Delia.
She contacted Harvard looking for information on the university's past and intended use of the daguerreotypes, but Harvard dismissed her claim of descent and didn't update her when it used images in a print publication and at a conference.
Lanier then filed suit, with allegations of negligent infliction of emotional distress in addition to property-related claims.
The SJC said, "in light of Harvard's complicity in the horrific actions surrounding the creation of the daguerreotypes," once Lanier communicated her connection to the images, Harvard had a duty "to take reasonable care in responding to her."
What this means now is the court is remanding the case to the Superior Court, with directions to allow Lanier to amend her complaint to include a claim of reckless infliction of emotional distress.
Representing Lanier is famed civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump — who has represented the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin — and attorney Joshua Koskoff of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport.
Koskoff said the message they are sending to Harvard is "See you in court," and the legal team wants to "find out everything we can about what Harvard was up to in trying to discredit this remarkable woman." Crump expressed confidence in how a jury would act upon hearing the facts of the case.
Koskoff said this is a landmark decision "because no longer can a university discard, flick off, denigrate, humiliate (or) ignore, the descendant of an enslaved person seeking justice."