Harvard University came into possession of what are believed to be the earliest photos of American slaves in 1850, commissioned by a Swiss professor who supported the polygenism theory, which argues that African-Americans were inferior to white people.
The images, which are known as daguerreotypes, feature a man named Renty and his daughter Delia, and now the great, great, great, grand-daughter of the American slave is suing the University over the photos. Tamara Lanier is accusing Harvard of the wrongful seizure, possession, and monetization of the images, in addition to ignoring her requests to “stop licensing the pictures for the university’s profit” and misrepresenting her ancestor, who she refers to as “Papa Renty.”
Lanier told USA TODAY she has presented Harvard with information about her direct lineage to Renty since 2011, but the school repeatedly turned down her requests to review the research. So, she filed suit against Harvard in Middlesex County Superior Court this week, seeking an unspecified amount of damages from Harvard as well as demands that the university gives the photos to her family.
“This will force them to look at my information. It will also force them to publicly have the discussion about who Renty was and restoring him his dignity,” Lanier said. She is being represented by the law firms of national civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump of Florida, who has worked high-profile cases for the families of #TrayvonMartin and #MichaelBrown.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
According to USA Today, the photos taken in 1850 of Renty, Delia and 11 other slaves disappeared for over 100 years but resurfaced in 1976 inside the attic of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. One of the photos of Renty has become an iconic image of slavery in the U.S.
The image is on the cover of a 2017 book, “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery,” published by the Peabody Museum, and Harvard sells them online for $40. The photo was also displayed on the program for a 2017 conference that Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted, discussing the school’s relationship with slavery.
Lanier’s attorneys say Harvard requires people to sign a contract in order to view the photos and must pay the University a licensing fee to reproduce the images. Koskoff said, “These images were taken under duress, and Harvard has no right to keep them, let alone profit from them. They are the rightful property of the descendants of Papa Renty.”
Lanier spent recent years researching and corresponding with genealogical experts who have validated her ancestry. She said she began studying her family’s lineage after her mother passed away in 2010, to follow up on family stories she heard about Papa Renty. She worked with Boston genealogist Chris Child, who is known for tracing ancestors of Barack Obama, according to a 2018 article in the Norwich Bulletin.