Yesterday, March 19, Tamara Lanier, an American descendant of enslaved people, filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts to obtain rights to two widely-known daguerreotypes stored at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The images in question depict two enslaved people, a father and daughter, photographed as part of a racist study commissioned by a Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz, in 1850, intended to document and prove the inferiority of Black people under the false theory of polygenism — the idea that Black and white people hail from different ancestors and gene pools. The images are thought to be some of the oldest existing photographs of enslaved people.
Lanier says she is a direct descendant of the pair, whose names are Renty and Delia, and that her family holds the claim over their images, not Harvard. She fondly refers to her great-great-grandfather as “Papa Renty,” and says she grew up hearing stories of his public service and self-education after he was taken from Africa.
“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.”
Lanier, a retired chief probation officer for the State of Connecticut and chairwoman of the state NAACP’s Criminal Justice Committee, is requesting a jury trial and unspecified punitive and emotional damages.
She has been arguing on behalf of her ancestors since the start of the decade when she first made the connection between her “Papa Renty” and the images at Harvard. In 2011, she told Connecticut newspaper The Day, “I was shocked when I saw the pictures-how piercingly painful it was — you can see the burdens of slavery in their eyes, and posturing. But a lot was familiar about those pictures. There was a striking family resemblance.”
She continued, “I’ve looked at horrible pictures of slavery before, but not when it was an ancestor, and I certainly view it differently. It’s very personal and brings you back to what they must have felt and were going through — what it must have felt like to be asked to disrobe and be photographed in the nude.”
Lanier is perturbed by the university’s continued ability to profit off of Renty and Delia’s images, which she considers family history.
The images were left forgotten for decades but were discovered in an unused storage cabinet in the Peabody Museum’s attic in 1976. The images were used on the cover of a $40 book on anthropology and photography published by Harvard. They were also used on the cover of a program for a 2017 conference at Harvard about academia’s relationship to slavery, which Lanier and her daughter attended. They say they were offended that participants were made to speak under a huge projection of Renty’s face. Reproductions of Renty and Delia’s likenesses are also currently on display on campus in an exhibit called Slavery in the Hands of Harvard. The university has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Carrie Mae Weems used images commissioned by Agassiz in her poetic, emotional series about ethnography and exploitation called From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995-96), inspired by her emotional connection with Delia’s image while perusing the Peabody’s archives. The university then threatened to sue Weems.
“I thought, Harvard’s going to sue me for using these images of Black people in their collection. The richest university in the world,” she mused in an Art21 film, confused and distraught. “I think that I don’t have really a legal case, but maybe I have a moral case that [should] be … carr[ied] out in public. I think that your suing me would be a really good thing. You should. And we should have this conversation in court.”
Instead of pursuing action, Harvard settled to receive a fee for each sale of the works, and then administrators purchased the images for its art museum — a move which Weems called confusing.
Benjamin Crump, one of Lanier’s lawyers, calls the case “unprecedented in terms of legal theory and reclaiming property that was wrongfully taken. Renty’s descendants may be the first descendants of enslaved ancestors to be able to get their property rights.” In 2012, Crump represented the family of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager murdered by George Zimmerman while walking home.
The lawsuit identifies the images as “spoils of theft,” as the images were captured without consent and with deeply troubling intentions.
“That photograph is like a hostage photograph,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, a vocal proponent for reparations, told the New York Times. “This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda — that’s what that photograph was taken for.”
A number of experts expressed to the NYT that they believe Lanier’s case may not hold up in court. Intellectual property lawyer Rick Kurnit says he believes she will have a difficult time proving ownership over the images, referencing the infamous “V-J Day in Times Square,” which belonged to the photographer rather than the sailor or the nurse who are kissing in the image. However, the NYT notes, the “V-J” image was taken in a public space.
Gregg Hecimovich, chairman of the English department at Furman University, believes Lanier’s claim to ancestral history is shaky, but Molly Rogers, the author of a book called Delia’s Tears, posits, “It’s not necessarily by blood. It could be people who take responsibility for each other. Terms, names, family relationships are very much complicated by the fact of slavery.”
Lanier’s suit claims that “by contesting Ms. Lanier’s claim of lineage, Harvard is shamelessly capitalizing on the intentional damage done to black Americans’ genealogy by a century’s worth of policies that forcibly separated families, erased slaves’ family names, withheld birth and death records, and criminalized literacy.”
“How ironic it is to know that the black African chosen by a scientist to be the symbol of ignorance and racial inferiority was truly an educated and self-taught man,” Lanier told The Day. According to her family’s verbal history, Renty taught himself to read, and taught other enslaved people using a book called the Blue Back Webster. “My goal is to correct history and to share with all that … Renty was an educated and exceptional person.”
“Papa Renty was a proud and kind man who, like so many enslaved men, women, and children endured years of unimaginable horrors,” Lanier told the Boston Globe. “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.”
Lanier does not yet know her exact intentions for the images if she is to win her case, and tells the NYT she would have to have a family meeting about it, but does not rule out licensing the images.