Editor’s Note: This endorsement is part of a special edition that Hyperallergic published on the ongoing legal case to return the photos of Renty and Delia Taylor to their descendants.
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The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum. The daguerreotypes were neglected within the long durée of Harvard’s ownership, and as a result have significantly faded. When I visited the Peabody archives in April of 2019, the images had become so degraded that they could only be shown to me and two other researchers for a short, private 30 minute appointment under low light. Current museum policy dictates that the daguerreotypes can be exposed for a maximum of ten hours of sunlight each year.
During its neglect and the damage that ensued as a result, Harvard has created reproductions of the daguerreotypes, including digital scans. Their preservation efforts however, have coincided with the hostility the university has displayed towards Black students, artists, researchers creating critical interventions into the legacy of chattel slavery. Over the decades, Harvard has threatened to sue, and have denied Black artists from accessing reproductions of the daguerreotypes, and have charged exorbitant fees to reproduce the images in critical monographs on chattel slavery and transnational racial justice. Most pressingly, Harvard’s claim to ownership has resulted in prohibiting ancestor Ms. Tamara Lanier from being reunited with her family. In essence, Renty Taylor and Delia have remained held captive by Harvard, where they are prohibited from connection to community, family, and have been denied even the semblance of reprieve.
The institution overall’s neglect of the daguerreotypes speaks to its provenance, predicated upon the profiters of chattel slavery. As it is well known, Louis Agassiz’s scientific racism (polygenesis) had the enthusiastic support of southern plantation owners, and the daguerreotypes were procured through this relationship. Ms. Lanier’s relationship to the daguerreotypes is unlike Harvard’s, as it is forged through her lineage, memory and care for her ancestry. While the daguerreotypes laid for decades in an attic at the university—Lanier and her family searched for traces of Renty and Delia and their remains. Though chattel slavery denied Renty and Delia their lives and freedom, Ms. Lanier looked for them and the remnants of their survival. Ms. Lanier’s relationship stems from a connection she has been unjustly denied; Harvard’s relationship to the daguerreotypes is one of historical injustice that must be rectified.
Procured on behalf of plantation owners who believed Agassiz’ polygenesis would provide credence to enslavers, for the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and Delia to remain at Harvard is akin to the continuation of their enslavement. Because they were enslaved then and because slavery has been abolished, Renty Taylor and Delia must be free today: because the laws did not permit their freedom then, the law must work to find freedom for them today. The law can and must remedy the injury of being held captive for centuries, of being denied access to one’s family, and permit the freedom they were and have been denied, today.
Elinor Reichlin, a former staff member of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, writes about the process of finding the daguerreotypes in an unused storage cabinet in the attic of the museum in 1975, see Reichlin, Elinor “Faces of Slavery, ”American Heritage, vol. 28, issue 4, June 1977
My appointment was on April 25th, 2019 from 10:45-11:15am
For an accounting of the process faced by Harvard students alone, see, Drake, Jarrett. “Blood at the Root,” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies: Vol. 8 , Article 6. (2021)
There are multiple accounts of this behavior, a non-exhaustive list of examples include: 1. Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko writes of the problems faced when trying to obtain image permissions for their book on Louis Agassiz, scientific racism, and tthe interconnections of transnational chattel slavery. At first the group was denied permission, and after a series of inflammatory articles questioning the Peabody’s position, the Museum changed its mind. The collective writes or this ordeal, “The context in which the photographs were taken raises thorny questions linked to the issues of manipulation, power and slavery, while the underlying objectives were connected to a defense of polygenism and creationism, and to the condemnation of miscegenation, which led the [Peabody] Museum to redouble its caution in allowing these images to reach the public eye (13).” See Huber, Sasha and Petri Saarikko. “Louis who? What you should know about Louis Agassiz.” (T)races of Louis Agassiz: Photography, Body and Science: Yesterday and Today. Ed. Machado, Maria Helena Pereira Toledo. Sao Paulo: Capacete, 2010, 130-138. 2. Carrie Mae Weems recounts how Harvard threatened to sue her for using the images on a series on the politics of US history, Blackness and photography, see, Weem, Carrie Mae. Interview with Art 21. Art 21: Season 5. PBS. 2009. 3. Suzanne Schneider also comments on how difficult it was for her to gain access to these daguerreotypes. In footnote 7 of the essay, “Louis Agassiz and the American School of Ethnoeroticism: Polygeneis, Pornography, and Other “Perfidious Influences,” Schneider comments on how she was denied access to the daguerreotypes since 2000. 4. A multi-racial coalition of Swiss scholars, artists and activists working on Switzerland’s legacy and role in the slave trade were also initally denied, see https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2012/06/26/harvard-fight-over-racist-images/oct8cc0KAGAm3H0qE9WY4H/story.html. In each insistence, and under the framing of property, Harvard attempted stall and halt the advancement of critical thinking and research into contemporary Black studies, theories of repatriations, and contemporary Black visual production.
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