Over the last few years, Hyperallergic has reported on the continuing quest of Tamara Lanier to retrieve daguerreotypes of her ancestors Renty and Delia Taylor. In March 2019, Lanier filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts to obtain rights to photographs in the collection of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, which were commissioned by Louis Agassiz as part of a eugenics campaign. The images depict her ancestors, Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, and are some of the oldest existing photographs of enslaved people.
“For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering,” Lanier said in a statement at the time. “It’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family.”
Since emerging into the public spotlight, there’s been a range of reactions from various communities watching this case. Some scholars have sided with the university over the family, while others, including those published here, support the family’s pursuit of justice through the return of the images. The images themselves have been used by artists, museums, and organizations since their rediscovery in the 1970s. However, many of those same individuals and institutions have remained silent at the recent calls by Lanier and her family for their property rights.
In March of this year, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge ruled in Harvard’s favor and dismissed the lawsuit. But Lanier appealed, and arguments will be heard at the Massachusetts Supreme Court on Monday, November 1.
This issue, we asked Hyperallergic staff reporter Valentina Di Liscia to summarize the saga in a useful primer on the topic. We also invited longtime Hyperallergic contributor CM Campbell to prepare a graphic essay about Tamara Lanier’s case and the questions around the “legality” of Harvard’s case for retaining the photographs. Thank you to both Valentina and CM for their work on this issue.
The following 12 scholarly endorsements of Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s amicus brief, which was released in the Boston Review, are being published in this edition: Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman, Kimberly Juanita Brown, Sandrine Colard, Carles Guerra, Marianne Hirsch, Eunsong Kim, Jane’a Johnson-Farnham, Fred Moten, Stephen Sheehi, Brian Wallis, Laura Wexler, and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa.
To illustrate the endorsements and other posts, we’ve decided to refrain from posting the photographs in question, which have been repeatedly used to dehumanize the enslaved individuals depicted. We chose instead to reproduce public domain and creative commons images of photo studios, old cameras, and daguerrotype frames to highlight the long history of photography and its complicated potential to depict — or skew — history.
A special thank you to Ariella Aïsha Azoulay for helping to facilitate contacts with all the scholars involved, and another thank you to Lakshmi Amin, Hyperallergic’s editorial coordinator, for shepherding the whole issue to screen.
We hope you will take the time to read.
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Prize-winning documentarian David Grubin has been following this case for several years, and his documentary on the subject just premiered at the GlobeDocs Film Festival in Boston: https://www.freerentyfilm.com. Your readers should know about this film!
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