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Harvard sued over use of photograph of slave

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 3/20/2019 By Deirdre Fernandes
a bicycle in front of a building: Tamara Lanier claims Harvard University is profiting off an image of her enslaved ancestor. © Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File Tamara Lanier claims Harvard University is profiting off an image of her enslaved ancestor.

A Connecticut woman is suing Harvard University for allegedly profiting from a photo of her family’s patriarch, an African slave who was forced to pose naked in what historians believe is one of the oldest images of enslaved people in the United States.

Tamara Lanier, a former chief probation officer in Norwich, said she has repeatedly asked Harvard since 2011 to stop using the daguerreotypes of a slave named Renty and his daughter, Delia. The photos were commissioned by a Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz, a biologist who used the images to bolster his argument of white superiority.

“For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering,” Lanier said in a statement. “It’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family,”

The photo, used most recently on the cover of a 2017 book on anthropology, depicts an older black man with white hair. His bones are visible, and he looks directly at the camera. He appears naked from the waist up.

The photo was taken in 1850 in South Carolina, where Renty was enslaved on the B.F. Taylor plantation, according to Lanier.

In her lawsuit, filed in Middlesex Superior Court, Lanier requests that Harvard return the daguerreotypes and cease to license the images.

Harvard officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.

The lawsuit raises new questions about how American universities should address their ties to slavery and come to terms with the racist views espoused by former presidents, benefactors and prominent professors.

In 1838, Jesuit priests sold nearly 300 slaves to save Georgetown University from financial disaster and to pay off its debt. The descendants of the slaves have demanded restitution. In 2017, Colby College announced that it would name a building for a former slave who for 37 years, beginning right after the Civil War, worked as the school’s janitor.

After student protests, Harvard in 2016 agreed to remove a shield used by its law school that included sheaves of golden wheat, a reference to a slaveholding donor’s coat of arms.

The images of Renty and his daughter were long forgotten until 1976, when they were discovered in a corner cabinet in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. A museum employee expressed concern for the families of the men and women depicted, but Harvard made no effort to locate descendants, the lawsuit alleges.

In 2011, Lanier wrote to Drew Faust, then Harvard’s president, detailing her ancestry and ties to Renty and Delia. But Lanier said she was unsuccessful in getting the photos returned.

Since then, Lanier said she has been gathering documentation of her ancestry and consulted with genealogical experts to validate her ties to Renty and Delia.

According to her research and family lore, Lanier believes that Renty was her great-great-great grandfather. He was captured by slave merchants and sold to a plantation in South Carolina, she said.

Renty taught himself to read and helped other slaves learn, Lanier said. He also held secret Bible readings and Bible study on the plantation, adding further insult to the use of his image to suggest black inferiority, Lanier said.

“Papa Renty was a proud and kind man who, like so many enslaved men, women and children endured years of unimaginable horrors,” Lanier said. “Harvard’s refusal to honor our family’s history by acknowledging our lineage and its own shameful past is an insult to Papa Renty’s life and memory.”

Agassiz was a Swiss-born scientist who came to Harvard in 1847 to teach zoology. He is considered one of the founders of modern American scientific tradition and referenced in Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”

But he did not believe that humans all belong to the same species. He commissioned 15 images of male and female slaves in the South shown from multiple angles to categorize and analyze racial differences. His theory and science was used to justify slavery and later segregation, and Harvard has yet to sufficiently refute his work, according to the lawsuit.

“These images were taken under duress, ordered by a Harvard professor bent on proving the inferiority of African-Americans,” said Michael Koskoff, a lawyer for Lanier. “Harvard has no right to keep them, let alone profit from them. It’s about time the university accept responsibility for its shameful history and for the way it treated Papa Renty and his family.”

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