A Connecticut woman has accused Harvard University of the wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of photographic images of her family’s patriarch, an enslaved African man named Renty, and his daughter, Delia, according to a filing in Middlesex County Superior Court.
According to the filing, the images were commissioned in 1850 by a Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz, and used to support a theory, known as polygenism, that Africans and African-Americans are inferior to whites. Polygenism was used to justify both the ongoing enslavement of black people prior to the Civil War and their segregation afterward. According to the lawsuit, Harvard stood by its professor and has never sufficiently repudiated Agassiz and his work.
The images, known as daguerreotypes, were captured in the winter of 1850 in a South Carolina photography studio. According to the filing, Renty was brought to a photography studio, stripped naked and photographed, and his daughter Delia was then stripped to the waist and forced to pose for photographs.
The lawsuit alleges that Harvard has ignored Tamara Lanier’s repeated requests to stop licensing the pictures for the university’s profit and to stop misrepresenting her great-great-great grandfather, whom she knows as Papa Renty. Lanier, who claims direct descent from Renty, seeks return of the photos to her family, as well as damages from Harvard.
“For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering – it’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family,” Lanier said in a statement. “Papa Renty was a proud and kind man who, like so many enslaved men, women and children, endured years of unimaginable horrors. 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’s assertion of black inferiority came when the Fugitive Slave Act was being hotly debated in Congress. For those seeking to prove that African Americans were inferior, Agassiz’s work, backed by Harvard’s prestige, was an invaluable gift.
According to Lanier, Renty was born in Africa. After being kidnapped by slave merchants, he was enslaved on the B.F. Taylor plantation in South Carolina. Though prohibited by South Carolina law, she claimed, Renty taught himself and other enslaved people to read and also conducted secret Bible readings and Bible study on the plantation.
Agassiz published the results of his research in an article entitled “The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races,” noting that he had recently studied “closely many native Africans belonging to different tribes, and [have] learned readily to distinguish their nations ... and determine their origin from their physical features.” He went on to describe the essential characteristics of Africans as “submissive, obsequious, [and] imitative,” possessing “a peculiar indifference to the advantages afforded by civilized society.”
In 1976, an employee of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the late Ellie Reichlin, discovered the photos in a corner cabinet of the museum’s attic. Despite Reichlin’s expressed concern for the families of the men and women depicted, Harvard University chose to make no effort to locate the subjects’ descendants, Lanier claimed. Harvard insists that anyone seeking to view the photographs sign a contract, and anyone wishing to reproduce the images pay a hefty fee to the university, Lanier claimed.
“Harvard – the wealthiest university in the world – has seen fit to further enrich itself from images that only exist because a Harvard professor forced enslaved men and women to participate in their creation without consent, dignity or compensation,” Ben Crump Law stated in a release.
In 2011, Lanier, then the chief probation officer in Norwich, Connecticut, wrote a letter to Dr. Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University from 2007-2018, according to the suit. Lanier detailed her ancestry and expressed her belief that she was a direct, linear descendant of Renty and Delia. “Dr. Faust’s evasive response made no mention of Lanier’s heritage and offered no opportunity to discuss returning the pictures to the Lanier family,” Ben Crump Law stated.
Lanier continued to gather documentation of her heritage and consult with genealogical experts who validated her ancestry, according to the suit. Lanier claimed she also made additional unsuccessful attempts to engage Harvard University in a conversation about the images. Lanier claimed that she reached out to the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, to suggest a news story about the daguerreotypes in 2016. She claimed that the paper responded positively and she traveled to Cambridge for an interview, but an editor at the Crimson then told her that the story had been killed due to “concerns the Peabody Museum has raised.”
According to the suit, Harvard continues to use the Renty images as a source of income. In 2017, the suit claims, Harvard used Renty’s image to sell its 13th anniversary edition of “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery.” A photograph of Renty is the sole cover image for the book, which is listed on Amazon for selling for more than $40. The same year, Harvard hosted a national academic conference called “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History.” Lanier claimed the program for the conference referred to Renty as “anonymous,” even though she had repeatedly told the university that the man was her great- great-great grandfather and his name is known.
“By my calculation, Renty is 169 years a slave. When will Harvard finally set him free?" Benjamin Crump, co-lead counsel for Lanier, said in a statement. “We cannot erase the wrongs of the past or the legacies of slavery within higher education, but we can forge a new path of respect, dignity and equality moving forward. Returning the images would be a first step in the right direction."
Lanier is represented by Crump, Talley Kaleko and Scott Carruthers of Ben Crump Law; Michael Koskoff, Joshua Koskoff, Preston Tisdale and Katie Mesner-Hage of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder; and Elizabeth Mulvey of Crowe & Mulvey.
Harvard University and the Harvard Crimson have been asked to respond to the claims in the suit, and The American will include their comments if received.