Woman Sues Harvard University Over Profiting From Photos Of Her Slave Ancestors

March 21, 2019  |  

American Slave Descendent Sues Harvard Over Earliest Photos Of African Slaves

Source: Kevin Hagen / Getty

A Black woman from Connecticut is on a quest to preserve the legacy of her family after filing a lawsuit against Harvard University for an undisclosed sum on Wednesday.

After years of searching and research Tamara Lanier discovered that her great-great-great-grandfather Renty and his daughter Deliah, were photographed in 1850, presumably against their will, as part of a project to support the theory of polygenism, a mantra which argued that Africans and African-Americans were subordinate to white people. The photos were commissioned by Harvard biologist, Louis Agassiz and are believed to be the earliest photos of American slaves.

Lanier filed paperwork in Massachusetts accusing the university of “the wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of the images.” She also requires that the photos be returned to her as she is next of kin.

The suit argues that the Ivy League institution has profited financially from the photos by using an image of Renty during a 2017 conference and charges a large licensing fee for anyone who wishes to reproduce the photos. The university also sells a $40 book with Renty’s portrait on the cover, the suit continues.

In an interview with USA Today Lanier reveals that she has reached out to the University on multiple occasions since 2011, willing to provide information that shows her direct lineage to Renty and Deliah. She said that her requests have gone on to no avail, as the University has declined to honor her wishes.

“This will force them to look at my information,” Lanier said. “It will also force them to publicly have the discussion about who Renty was and restoring him his dignity.”

“To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” a portion of the suit reads. “The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered.”

Lanier says that her journey to obtain the photos are a direct request from her mother who died in 2010.

“It was a journey,” she said. “It was important to my mother that I write this story of who Papa Renty was down and to do a family tree.”

“I made a promise to my mother,” she continued.

Lanier is represented by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump who argues that Harvard has the opportunity to “remove the stain from its legacy” in honoring Lanier’s wishes.

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