BOSTON — In 1850, a Swiss-born Harvard College professor commissioned what are believed to be the earliest photographs of American slaves.
The photographs, generally known as daguerreotypes and brought in a South Carolina studio, are crude and dehumanizing — they usually have been used to advertise racist beliefs.
Among the many photographed: an African man named Renty and his daughter Delia. They have been stripped bare and photographed from a number of angles. Former professor Louis Agassiz, a biologist, had the photographs taken to help an faulty principle referred to as polygenism that he and others used to argue African-People have been inferior to white individuals.
Now, a lady who claims to be a direct descendant of that father and baby – Tamara Lanier, the great-great-great granddaughter of Renty – is suing Harvard over the photographs.
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She’s accused Harvard of the wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of the pictures, ignoring her requests to “cease licensing the photographs for the college’s revenue” and misrepresenting the ancestor she calls “Papa Renty.”
The college nonetheless owns the photographs. Lanier, who resides in Connecticut and filed the go well with towards Harvard in Middlesex County Superior Courtroom on Wednesday, is in search of an unspecified quantity of damages from Harvard. She’s additionally demanding that the college give her household the pictures.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Lanier stated she’s introduced Harvard with details about her direct lineage to Renty since round 2011 however the faculty has repeatedly turned down her requests to assessment the analysis.
“This can pressure them to take a look at my info,” Lanier stated. “It’s going to additionally pressure them to publicly have the dialogue about who Renty was and restoring him his dignity.”
The go well with, which lays out eight totally different authorized claims, cites federal regulation over property rights, the Massachusetts regulation for the restoration of private property and a separate state regulation concerning the unauthorized use of a reputation or image for promoting functions.
It additionally singles out the 13th Modification to the Structure, which abolished slavery, arguing that Harvard’s ongoing possession of the photographs “displays and is a continuation of core elements or incidents of slavery.”
“For years, Papa Renty’s slave house owners profited from his struggling – it’s time for Harvard to cease doing the identical factor to our household,” Lanier stated.
Who was Renty?
She referred to as Renty a “proud man who, like so many enslaved males, ladies and youngsters, endured years of unimaginable horrors.”
“Harvard’s refusal to honor our household’s historical past by acknowledging our lineage and its personal shameful previous is an insult to Papa Renty’s life and reminiscence.”
The go well with additional claims Harvard has “by no means sufficiently repudiated Agassiz and his work.”
Jonathan Swain, a spokesman for Harvard, stated Wednesday that the college “has not but been served, and with that’s in no place to touch upon this lawsuit submitting.”
Lanier is represented by the regulation companies of nationwide civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump of Florida, who has labored high-profile instances for the households of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, in addition to Connecticut-based lawyer Michael Koskoff.
The photographs taken in 1850 of Renty, Delia and 11 different slaves disappeared for greater than a century however have been rediscovered in 1976 within the attic of Harvard College’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
One of many pictures of Renty, displaying him waist-up as he seems to be defiantly into the digital camera with a straight face, has 4 many years later became an iconic picture of slavery within the U.S.
The lawsuit argues that Harvard has used the Renty photographs to “enrich itself.” The picture is on the the duvet of a 2017 guide, “From Website to Sight: Anthropology, Images and the Energy of Imagery,” revealed by the Peabody Museum and bought on-line by Harvard for $40.
The identical photograph was additionally displayed on this system for a 2017 convention that Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advance Research hosted on the varsity’s relationship with slavery.
Based on Lanier’s attorneys, Harvard requires that folks signal a contract with a view to view the pictures and pay a licensing charge to the college to breed the pictures.
Archives: Harvard Regulation drops controversial seal
“These photographs have been taken underneath duress and Harvard has no proper to maintain them, not to mention revenue from them,” Koskoff stated. “They’re the rightful property of the descendants of Papa Renty.”
He accused Harvard of not wanting to inform the “full story” of how Renty’s picture was seized – towards the desire of slaves for a professor who sought to “show the inferiority” of the black race.
“Harvard continues to today to honor him, and that’s an abomination,” Koskoff stated.
In recent times, Harvard leaders have publicly acknowledged the varsity’s position in fostering slavery. Along with the 2017 convention on slavery, the varsity convened a school committee a yr earlier to jump-start scholarship and analysis on Harvard’s historical past with slavery.
Former College President Drew Faust in a 2016 speech stated Harvard was “instantly complicit” in America’s system of racial bondage till it was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783. She stated Harvard remained “not directly concerned by means of in depth monetary and different ties” to slavery within the South.
“That is our historical past and our legacy, one we should absolutely acknowledge and perceive as a way to really transfer past the painful injustices at its core,” Faust stated.
How the lawsuit started
The go well with tries to chart how Lanier, a former chief probation officer in Norwich, Connecticut, has on a number of event sought to interact the college concerning the pictures to no avail.
Her attorneys say it started in 2011 when she wrote a letter to then-president Faust, whose “evasive response” didn’t present a chance to debate returning the photographs to Lanier’s household.
5 years later, she stated she reached out to the student-run Harvard Crimson newspaper, however that its editor relayed that the story had been “killed” on account of considerations by the Peabody Museum.
Within the college’s use of the pictures, plaintiffs contend that Harvard has “prevented the truth that the daguerreotypes have been a part of a research, overseen by a Harvard professor, to exhibit racial inferiority of blacks.”
“When will they not condone slavery and eventually free Renty? As a result of their actions denote one thing totally different than what they could say,” Crump stated.
“We try to inform as many individuals all through America, and particularly black individuals, that Renty does deserve the fitting to have his picture. He was 169 years a slave, however based mostly on this lawsuit, we sought to ensure he can be a slave no extra.”
Agassiz was thought-about one in every of the best biologists and geologists on the earth within the mid-19th century. However his document has grow to be problematic over time. He was an opponent of Charles Darwin’s concept of evolution. And in fiercely subscribing to polygenism, he held the now-debunked perception that white individuals and African-People got here from totally different species.
The pictures he commissioned have been taken by J.T. Zealy in a studio in Columbia, South Carolina. He revealed them a month later in an article titled “The Variety of Origin of the Human Races.”
Agassiz’s legacy nonetheless lives on at Harvard. He based the varsity’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and his spouse Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, additionally a Harvard researcher of pure historical past, was founder and the primary president of Radcliffe School, now the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Ladies. There’s a road in Cambridge named after Agassiz and a Harvard theater, the Agassiz Home.
Lanier stated she started learning her lineage after her mom died in 2010 to comply with up on household tales she heard about Papa Renty. She labored with Boston genealogist Chris Baby, who is understood for tracing ancestors of Barack Obama, in line with a 2018 article within the Norwich Bulletin.
“It was a journey,” she stated. “It was necessary to my mom that I write this story of who Papa Renty was down and to do a household tree.
“I made a promise to my mom,” she added.
Based on the newspaper, Lanier stated that she believes she will hint her great-grandfather, named Renty Taylor after which Renty Thompson, to a plantation close to Columbia, South Carolina, owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor. That is the place the pictures are believed to have been taken.
She stated she began offering Harvard proof that she’s a descendant of Renty however that the varsity has been “non-responsive.” “Most significantly, I would like the true story of who Renty is to be informed. That’s all I’ve ever requested for.”
The Bulletin quoted Pamela Gerardi, the Peabody Museum’s director of exterior relations, who described the photographs final yr as “extraordinarily delicate” and nicely cared for.
“We anticipate they may stay right here in perpetuity,” she stated on the time. “That’s what museums do.”
Supply: Harvard sued by descendant of slaves over photographs, together with Renty
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