Last year, we published a dossier of statements by leading scholars supporting the fight of Tamara Lanier to reclaim the daguerreotypes of her ancestors from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. Lanier, who lives in Norwich, Connecticut, had long heard stories through her family about an ancestor named Papa Renty, a learned man from Africa who was enslaved and brought to the United States under inhumane conditions. Those stories about Renty were important to her family and to the memory of their heritage that they kept alive.
Then one day, Lanier discovered that there were photographs of her relative, and they were deposited at Harvard University because of a 19th-century racist academic named Louis Agassiz. Agassiz had commissioned them to “prove” his white supremacist ideas about race and they lay in a trunk at the Peabody Museum until a researcher resurfaced them in the 1970s.
In this podcast, I speak to Lanier about the continuing fight to reclaim her family heritage by asking Harvard to accept her right to ownership of the images. She discusses a fascinating visit to the home of descendants of the Taylor family, enslavers who claimed Lanier’s ancestors as property, and some surprising discoveries she made along the way.
This is a must-hear episode, and I would highly recommend reading Valentina Di Liscia’s excellent article, which was part of our special dossier, that summarizes the history of the court case and the larger fight to “Free Renty.”
Lanier has also allowed us reproduce some of the photographs she took at the Taylor family home, which includes various items of furniture created by her ancestors when they were enslaved.
A full transcript of the interview can be found below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Hrag Vartanian: Last year in 2021, we published a special dossier on Hyperallergic, which focused on the continuing quest of Tamara Lanier to retrieve daguerreotypes of her ancestors from Harvard University. It’s an unusual story that has a lot of repercussions, and we think it’s important, so we made a podcast to elaborate on what we did. So let’s get you up to speed. In March 2019, she filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts to obtain rights to photographs in the collection of the institution’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, which was commissioned by Louis Agassiz as part of a eugenics campaign to prove that Africans were inferior to Europeans. 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 our suffering,” Lanier said in a statement at the time. “It’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same to our family.” Since emerging into the 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 support the family’s own pursuit of justice to the return of the images. The photographs themselves have been used by artists, museums, and organizations since their rediscovery by a researcher 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 last year, a Massachusetts superior judge ruled in Harvard’s favor and dismissed the lawsuit, but Lanier appealed and the arguments were heard at the Massachusetts Supreme Court on Monday, November 1, 2021. I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperallergic. In this interview, I talked to Tamara Lanier via Zoom to learn more about her quest for justice, and she even discusses a meeting she had with some of the descendants of those who enslaved her ancestors. Let’s get started.
Thank you, Tammy, for joining us to talk about this case, which of course has been getting a lot of press and a lot of conversations going, and I know certainly in colleges and universities around the world, as well as archives and museums. So I’d just like to start by asking, when was the first time you knew that these daguerreotypes existed?
Tamara Lanier: I learned of the daguerreotypes in 2010, shortly after the passing of my mother. I had initially promised my mother that I would document the story about Papa Renty and our oral history, and in the process of doing so, I was assisted by an elderly gentleman who owned an ice cream shop, and he did the initial research and discovered the daguerreotypes. And when I went back to visit his ice cream shop for lunch, he also sold lunch, he greeted me with, “Where have you been? I found your Papa Renty on the internet. I found an image of your Papa Renty on the internet.” And I’m like, “Yeah, right. What is my Papa Renty doing on the internet?” And Rich has since passed away. He died last year. But one of the things that I’m most grateful for is when I initially talked with Rich, I talked to him about Papa Renty and who he was and that of his African descendancy, that he was from Africa. And when Rich found the information about Louis Agassiz and scientific racism, that’s why Rich was so certain that it was my Papa Renty. And before he passed, one of the documenters who had been following us was able to get that discussion on camera. So it’s immortalized that initially, when I talked with Rich, I talked to him about an African-born man named Renty and I also shared with him who some of Renty’s children were. And Rich took that information and did the research and put together this incredible packet of information, not only about Papa Renty and some of his children, but also about Harvard and Louis Agassiz. And so that was the very first moment when I saw the daguerreotype, but I can tell you in my heart of hearts, when I looked at that image, I knew that was the Papa Renty that I had heard about for my entire life. Our eyes connected, and I knew immediately this was the man that so many generations of his children talked about.
Hrag Vartanian: I mean, those photos as well are … I mean, they’re pretty harrowing photos. So I’m wondering in terms of when you saw them at first, did this give you more insight into his story? What were some of the first reactions you had?
Tamara Lanier: Yeah. That was really a moment. And when I say that, I mean that there were so many emotions at that time when our eyes first met. It was almost as if we were staring at each other and our eyes connected. And in my mind, I’m thinking I’m seeing the family resemblances. I’m remembering the stories. I’m remembering the things that my mom would share about who he was. But then I also, in that same moment, came to the realization about the horrific circumstances in capturing this image. And so, I was excited and I remember thinking, “My god, why couldn’t I have found these images before my mom passed so that she could see it?” And then I remember immediately correcting myself. My god, my mother could not see this and know this. This would hurt her to her core. This would hurt her so terribly to know what had happened to the man that she spoke so fondly of for a generation. So there was mixed emotions. It was glad and sorry. I was extremely happy to finally see the man that I had heard so much about, but then just heartbroken at the circumstances of the capturing of these images.
Hrag Vartanian: I mean, I can understand that. I mean, just hearing you talk about it, I can feel the emotion in that experience and that encounter, really.
Tamara Lanier: Yeah. I just kept thinking of my mom and how she would feel. I think she would want to have seen this image, but it would hurt her to know what had happened. And she would, if she had her health and her strength, there would be nothing that could prevent her from trying to correct that wrong, and that’s why I feel so motivated, so compelled to continue this fight, because I’m doing it because it’s what my mom would want me to do.
Hrag Vartanian: One of the things I’ve been very impressed by in general has been this kind of fortitude you seem to have on this issue. This sense of clarity. And I wonder where that came from, and what is it that motivates you to have that kind of focus and fortitude on such a frankly difficult issue?
Tamara Lanier: It is. And I aspire every day to be more like my mother. We had such a close relationship. We were closer than mother and daughter and it’s hard to describe. Throughout her illness, actually throughout my entire life, we spent … There wasn’t a morning that she didn’t call and wake me up. There wasn’t an evening where we didn’t say goodnight. And when she was sick, the care from the first thing in the morning, going to her home, making sure everything was arranged, even the convalescents in the nursing homes. So her last few years were … It was a labor of love. I’m happy that I was there to provide the care she needed. I wished that there was more that I could do for her. And in all that I do and all that I am, she is so much more than that. And like I say, I aspire to be more like her every day. She was just a special person who had so much love for the world and everybody and everything in it, but she was also a fighter and she also believed in social justice and civil rights. She would often say she grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. She would call that the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. She talks about the Montgomery bus boycott that her brother Renty participated in. You know, although she left the South, she never left the roots and who she was, and that was one of the things that she repeated like a mantra. “Always remember, you’re Taylors, not Thompsons. We’re African and Indian.” She would say things like that. And I really didn’t appreciate the value of that until later going back and doing the research and putting this amazing puzzle together. But it was all about remembering who we were, family values, and just leaving the world a better place than where we found it. That’s who she was, and like I said, if I could get close to the person that she was, I’d be really doing well.
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, absolutely. And what was her name?
Tamara Lanier: Her name was Mattye, Mattye Pearl Thompson Lanier.
Hrag Vartanian: Beautiful. And so you mentioned, one of the things that I heard when you were saying this, was you mentioned that her brother’s name was Renty.
Tamara Lanier: Yes.
Hrag Vartanian: Is that a prominent name in your family?
Tamara Lanier: Five generations, from the man in the image to my mother’s brother.
Hrag Vartanian: Wow.
Tamara Lanier: And I think about it. My brother, who is named after my father, and we have in my generation one other male who was named after his father. But from the man in the image to my mother’s generation, you can find a child named Renty, at least one that I know in my family line. And I’m finding in the research that other children named … Other descendants of Renty named their children Renty as well. So, I think just to pay homage to who the man was in the image and how much he meant to his family and how much he meant to the community. By all the accounts, he was an amazing man as well, and every generation thereafter have named children after him.
Hrag Vartanian: That’s incredible. I mean, I’m tearing up right now because it’s … It’s just because thinking of clearly he had such a huge impact on people around him.
Tamara Lanier: Yes.
Hrag Vartanian: So I’m wondering, was it your mother who first told you about Renty, and if so, what did she tell you?
Tamara Lanier: I can remember, I remember more in grammar school. I remember taking the stories to school with me and sharing them with the teachers. I remember at a very young age, her talking about our African ancestry and that Papa Renty was called the Black African, and she would talk about him in a sense where she would just, again, just marvel at the things that he was able to do with the limited circumstances, with his limited circumstances. And the one thing that she was most proud of was the fact that he taught himself to read and that he would teach others to read using Noah Webster’s Blue Back Speller. The original or the official title of the book is the Blue Back Webster, but my mother, and from what I’m learning, slaves or the enslaved ancestors or the enslaved people would refer to it as the Blue Back Webster. And firstly, to get your hand on one of these books was a feat, but then …
Hrag Vartanian: It was illegal, right? It was illegal at the time, correct?
Tamara Lanier: Absolutely illegal. And beyond that, not only did he learn to read, but he was teaching others, and that he would teach Bible lessons and that he would read from the Bible to people. And so my mother respected that. I remember my mother at this point was in a nursing home and it was one Saturday afternoon, and as usual, when we were sitting with our downtime and our alone time, she would start with the Black African, Papa Renty, and she’d start telling these stories. And we had the book. My mother remembered seeing the book that was passed down generation as well. She didn’t know what became of it. She thought it was left with her brother, Renty, who was still in Alabama. But I happened to have my laptop with me that afternoon and I Googled the Noah Webster Speller and I pulled it up and I said, “Is this the book?” And she said, “That’s it. That’s that little blue book.” And so what I ended up doing, lo and behold, the Noah Webster house is not far from my home, so I traveled to West Hartford where Noah Webster’s house is being memorialized and it’s somewhat of a museum, and I picked up a copy of the book. And I’ve actually looked at the book, and the one thing that stood out to me is something my mom would always say. “If you don’t know how to read, it’s not easy to teach yourself.” So looking at this small book, I don’t know … And granted, I’d like to consider myself educated, but I know that I would have trouble teaching myself to read from that book. So I thought about just the impossibility of someone accessing that book, and under the threat of God knows what because it was illegal. They could be killed. They could be tortured just by being found to be in possession of that book. And that he took the time to read, to teach himself to read, to read to others and teach others, it kind of speaks to the amazing man that my mom and so many talked about.
Hrag Vartanian: Truly. I mean, I’m thinking under those conditions, I’m sure he spoke another language, if not many languages.
Tamara Lanier: Yes.
Hrag Vartanian: Coming from Africa.
Tamara Lanier: Yes.
Hrag Vartanian: And to then teach himself to read and then in literally the most impossible circumstances, where even having books was illegal, and then teaching others. I mean, why do you think he did that? Is [there] any insight in terms of the stories you’ve been hearing that sort of relays a little bit of his own sort of character?
Tamara Lanier: Yeah. And, you know, I recorded my mom talking about this.
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wonderful.
Tamara Lanier: And she said, in the recording that I still have, she says, “He did not know how to read and he wanted to know what was in that book.” Those were her words. Now, I’m assuming she got it from her grandfather Renty who was the grandson of the man in the image. So my mom literally got firsthand stories from enslaved people, and so those were her words, and I have her recorded talking about it. And she said he would work all day and read and study that book all night. And what was also amazing was I ultimately, with the assistance of some people in South Carolina, was able to find a descendant of the slaveholder, Benjamin Franklin Taylor. And after some conversation, he invited me to his home for the weekend, so I traveled to South Carolina to meet with Dr. Edmond Taylor.
Hrag Vartanian: And just to be clear, just to be clear, this is the gentleman who would have been the plantation owner or the slave owner at the time of Papa Renty?
Tamara Lanier: His great-great-grandson.
Hrag Vartanian: Okay. Sorry. Go ahead.
Tamara Lanier: Yes. And it was amazing. And again, when I talk about just moments in time where you’re frozen, just paralyzed by just excitement and enthusiasm. Dr. Taylor, that afternoon, we had lunch at his home and when we sat down, he began by saying, “We’re eating from the dishes that belonged to Benjamin Franklin Taylor, the enslaver.” And he said, “The table and chairs that you are sitting at were hand-carved by the Taylor family carpenter.” So I was paralyzed in that moment because by now, I virtually have memorized Benjamin Franklin Taylor’s will, but I know that my ancestors were identified as the family carpenter. So I’m like, “Oh my God.”
Hrag Vartanian: Wow.
Tamara Lanier: “Could I be sitting at a table and chair that was hand-carved by my ancestor?” And so he’s …
Hrag Vartanian: That’s a lot.
Tamara Lanier: Yeah. And I’m still stuck in that moment. And so I’m like … And I was looking at the amazing woodwork and the detail of the wood and how sturdy the chair was that I was sitting at, the table, and the other woodwork associated with the set. And I’m like, “Oh my God.” And so after Dr. Taylor talked, I did mention to him, I said, “You do know that my family members are identified as the family carpenters?” And he let me take pictures of the woodwork that was hand-carved by the slaves, and I have those pictures and it was just an amazing moment. But what was also amazing about that conversation, as Dr. Edmond Taylor was talking, giving us the perspective from the slaveholders, he was telling me the same stories that my mom had told me from the slaves’ perspective. So I was hearing the same stories, but from the enslaved people’s perspective and from the slaveholder’s perspective. Dr. Taylor talked about the fact he named one of the Taylor’s favorite slaves, Sancho Thompson, who I believe is [an ancestor] of mine, and he talked about Sancho and others knew how to read, that they knew they knew how to read, but it was because they were men of the cloth who would teach and preach religion, it was allowed. And Dr. Taylor talked about Daniel Webster’s visit to the Taylor plantation to see how the slaves were treated, and he talked about the fact that after … Actually, this was Noah Webster. Daniel Webster was the educator. Noah Webster was the politician from Massachusetts and he was an abolitionist until he visited the Taylor family plantation, and then went back to Boston to proclaim that he would never speak against slavery again.
Hrag Vartanian: Wait, what?
Tamara Lanier: Yes. This is what Dr. Edmond Taylor … These are documented facts as well.
Hrag Vartanian: But why? That makes no sense? Why was that the case?
Tamara Lanier: Well, I said to Dr. Taylor, “Didn’t he think it odd that firstly, you got …” Well, no. From Boston to South Carolina was no simple hop, skip, and a jump. It was a great commute. And you have Louis Agassiz from Boston traveling to the Taylor plantation to see their slaves. Then you have Daniel Webster traveling from Boston to see the Taylor plantation and their slaves. And in the 1850s, the political synergy of the North was Boston. It wasn’t as it is today. Boston was the hub of the politics in the North.
Hrag Vartanian: Right.
Tamara Lanier: And also, the question at hand was slavery or emancipation. And so I remember saying to Dr. Taylor, “Do you think that this was a coincidence that all these people are traveling from Boston, these people who have an interest in slavery, to see the slaves and then go back and profess that they’ll never speak against it? Do you think that this was some small part of a larger political campaign, so to speak?” And he didn’t think so. He said that the Taylors were … The Taylors treated their slaves with dignity and respect. And I remember saying something about despite the paradox of dignity and slavery, those two words should never be in the same sentence together, but he wanted me to know the Taylors were God-fearing people who had respect for those that they enslaved, and he felt that the politics that came out of Boston … Yes. Very heavy, right?
Hrag Vartanian: Very. I mean, there’s a lot to unpack in this.
Tamara Lanier: There’s so much. There’s so much because it goes back to, again, Louis Agassiz’s motivation and the motivation of the people that were financially connected by slavery. In my complaint, my attorney originally wrote, he quoted a famous quote to say that “cotton was the thread that held the Union together.” And little is often talked about how greatly the North benefited from slavery, particularly the industrial revolution that happened in Boston and Connecticut. And so again, for me, all of these visits from Northern, particularly Boston, politicians and Boston scholars with unsavory motivations visiting the same plantation, the fact that happened by coincidence is, in my mind, impossible. It was a part of a larger political propaganda piece to promote slavery.
Hrag Vartanian: So does that gentleman still live in the same home or on the same property that his ancestors would have owned?
Tamara Lanier: Dr. Edmond Taylor passed away as well. His family does not … When I visited, he took me on a tour of Columbia, South Carolina, the South Carolina University land that the Taylors had given, donated to the state of South Carolina. What Dr. Taylor said to me was that the Taylor family donated so much land to the state of South Carolina, that because of the gifting of that property, the capitol changed from Charleston to Columbia. Now, whether that is the fact, I’ve looked at that and I’ve found things to support that, but whether that is actually the case or not, but that is certainly what he told me.
Hrag Vartanian: I mean, I have to say, to go back to the point of fortitude, I mean, I’m impressed. I think I would have been filled with anger if I were to discover furniture that my ancestors had made. I mean, I’m in awe of you right now to think …
Tamara Lanier: Well, can I tell you…
Hrag Vartanian: Even to have a gentleman say that to me, I would probably be pretty angry, I’m guessing.
Tamara Lanier: There was … How can I put this? I was eternally grateful for the opportunity to meet him because he filled in spaces that would otherwise be blank in terms of my family puzzle. So the information that I gleaned from that meeting is invaluable. And I genuinely felt that the reason why he had this discussion, he brought this group together, he also brought together a gentleman who he described as a man who had also descended from the Taylor family plantation, someone whom he had put through medical school and someone whom he was quite fond of, so I felt like the purpose was for me to see them in a humane way and that they weren’t the horrible slaveholders like we see in Hollywood. And so I won’t call it guilt, but I want to say that it was definitely important to him that I see him as a God-fearing Christian and that his family was, and I respected that. And, you know, the only thing that I had to offer was there’s no dignity in slavery, and so … And I think we were good.
Hrag Vartanian: Did he agree with that?
Tamara Lanier: He didn’t say anything. So I think he felt … I don’t know. I felt, what I took from our conversations is it was important for him that I see him in a humanistic way, in a human way, in a humane way, and their family in a humane way, and that they did these things for their slaves. He talked about a woman who … And he actually gave me some of his writings because he was working on some memoirs or a manuscript on the Taylor family about this enslaved woman, and they called her Mama Letti, and I remembered when he kept saying Mama Letti, I remember thinking, “I wonder if by this generation, even the Taylors are calling Papa Renty, Papa Renty” because that’s what my family did. Papa Renty. Mama Ophelia. So that’s how we refer to our elders. And when he was talking about Mama Letti and that everyone called her that, I felt like it was for me kind of a validation that they probably called Papa Renty “Papa,” too. But he talked about how fond they were of their slaves, one slave, Sancho Thompson, in particular, that they buried in the Taylor family plot, and that that was an amazing thing at that time. But there is a part of me that, when I’m going through the will, the one thing that I’ll never forget, as I’m going down the slave indexes, is sorting my family out amongst the cows and the pigs and the mules. I mean, you’ll go through names of slaves and then you’re dealing with livestock and chattel and then back to slave names, and it’s such a dehumanizing experience for me to read that, let alone for those who lived it.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely.
Tamara Lanier: To be mixed in with the livestock.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. Now, was he aware of this photograph at all or these photographs in general?
Tamara Lanier: Yes. Yes.
Hrag Vartanian: Okay.
Tamara Lanier: And we actually talked about that and questioned as to why and how they came to be. And I think he’s even written about that, but I know he has said that Benjamin Franklin Taylor was a man of science and he went along with it because of the scientific intent and purposes of this study. So for me, that told me that it wasn’t like, “Oh, I just want to take a few photos of your slaves.” When he said that Benjamin Franklin Taylor was a man of science, I think he had to know that this was a scientific study to prove white supremacy.
Hrag Vartanian: Right.
Tamara Lanier: And so there’s a part of me that…
Hrag Vartanian: So he wasn’t … Yeah. Sorry. Go ahead.
Tamara Lanier: Yeah. He wasn’t duped to the degree that he didn’t understand the purpose of what was going on. But again, everyone had an interest in promoting slavery at this time, the Boston politicians and the Southern slaveholders. And to the degree there was always this competition or conflict between North and South, there was one thing that kept the Union together, and that was slavery and the value of cotton.
Hrag Vartanian: Right. Tammy, I can’t get over that. The idea of bringing someone to sit on chairs that their enslaved ancestors made is a very complicated thing that I have to say, I find very confusing.
Tamara Lanier: Yeah.
Hrag Vartanian: About that. And so how much of this do you think was an effort to absolve themselves or absolve himself of this? Because you mentioned guilt, but …
Tamara Lanier: To be honest, I don’t think he knew what I knew, and it wasn’t until later when I told him, “You know, my enslaved ancestors are identified as the carpenters in your family will and Benjamin Franklin Taylor’s will,” and he said he did not know, and he invited me to take pictures of them. But I know how I felt. Again, I was frozen in time, and for probably the next two or three moments, I don’t think I heard what he said because I was trapped in that moment where I’m thinking, “I am sitting on and leaning on table and chairs that were hand carved by my enslaved ancestors.” And I go through this experience where I just envision what that would look like, not only just to be laboring and carving them, but laboring in despair. And so it was a real moment for me, and I’m sure not the same kind of moment for him when he did realize. But I think again, it was important for him … I think him inviting the doctor who came to eat lunch with us, the one that he had put through medical school, and taking me on a tour of Columbia, South Carolina, showing all that the Taylors have given and given back, was almost his way of atoning for what his family had done. And so he made a point to make sure I was aware that the Taylors have given of their time, their money, their land to charity.
Hrag Vartanian: But of course, he’s talking about generosity that was sort of done based on profiting from enslaved people, and so I’m assuming their family is still quite wealthy. Was that your impression?
Tamara Lanier: I don’t know. I didn’t get that impression. I know that in talking with the family, particularly some of his children and family members, they were not aware. I remember at one point thinking, “I’m telling you more about your great-great-grandfather than you know. This should be the other way around. You should be telling me.” What I was saying to them from time to time was very new to them. They were not aware. And I think … I have throughout the years reached back out to Dr. Taylor’s daughter, who I had a wonderful visit with and we stay in touch, and oftentimes I’ve asked her, because some press have wanted to talk to her, and so she’s not comfortable in speaking publicly. And you know what? I like to compare them or contrast them with the Agassiz descendants, who can’t wait to talk publicly about how to redeem not only their family legacy, but how to re … How do I say this? How to give back in light or atone for the sins of the father. Meaning Agassiz. And so they’re very much engaged. They’re very much hands-,on. And I contrast that with the Taylors who just don’t want to talk about it, are not comfortable talking publicly, and I respect that. And I just … People, I understand … I guess I can understand. I don’t know how I would feel if I were to learn something like that, and I would like to think that I would respond like the Agassiz children are and just take a strong stance against it, speak out about the harm and the wrong and offer whatever services I could to repair that, but I do understand and I do see many people who learn about these ugly, dark secrets in their history who just want to act as if it never happened.
Hrag Vartanian: Did the Taylor family have any connection to Harvard after that time where the photos were taken?
Tamara Lanier: I’m not finding any. I don’t believe so. And a lot of this was really news to some of the family members, particularly this last generation, the generation that is along with me and Dr. Edmond Taylor, was like … I refer to my mom as the keeper of our family story. Dr. Edmond Taylor was that keeper of the family story, and I don’t know that there is anyone currently that has an interest, that has a desire to tell this story and to document this story, and I think a lot of that legacy and history passed when Dr. Edmond Taylor passed.
Hrag Vartanian: Wow. I mean, there’s so many threads here that we can pull on and they all seem to be … So what is […] the part of this story that you wish you had an answer to that you still haven’t been able to crack?
Tamara Lanier: The one prevailing thought, question I have is if I could just really have an understanding as to why Harvard has responded in the way that they have. Why initially did Harvard choose to ignore all of my requests to talk, to meet, to go over my research, to honor Renty’s legacy, to tell his true story, to not celebrate and elevate Louis Agassiz? Because he’s the villain in the story, he’s the bad guy, and when you tell the story, tell it in a light that promotes Renty and Delia and the other enslaved people who were victimized. And they would never be receptive to that. They never, never in all the … Coming up soon, it will be 12 years in January, and they’ve never embraced that. And I look at that back and I said, I never asked Harvard for much. Initially, all I asked them to do is tell the true story of who my Papa Renty was. If you have to celebrate Agassiz, give Renty a footnote to say, “This is who this man was” and tell the truth about who he was. And what Harvard did was they would drill down. They started publishing books with false narratives and false speculations about who Renty is. And originally, they challenged my lineage. But I have been just so extremely blessed, and I say that because good fortune has really shined on me in a sense that when you think about a story that began in the 1840s and ’50s with an enslaved man telling his children to never forget, and here I am in 2021 telling my children to never forget. And then when I go back and take the oral history as it was presented to me, it’s almost as if my mother was reading from a manuscript. Everything that she said lined up with every official document that I encountered. It’s almost if she had written it herself. And so that’s how accurate our oral history is with names and dates and places. And my mom, she would say to us, “Always remember we’re Taylors, not Thompsons.” My mom knew that when her grandfather Renty Taylor Thompson was … My mom’s oral history was that he was sold from the Taylors and became Thompson. But what it was, was he was gifted as a gift. He was given as a gift and his name changed not because of a slave trade, but as he was just given as a gift. He was bequeathed to Benjamin Franklin Taylor’s daughter.
Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow.
Tamara Lanier: But if I didn’t have the oral history, I might not have been able to bridge the gap and the huge divide that many people of color encounter when they’re tracing their oral histories and when they’re tracing their ancestries. It’s really like navigating through a maze in the dark. You feel like you’re this … It’s almost as if you’re an adopted child trying to find some piece of evidence as to who you are, and there’s nothing there. And so, it is really sometimes an exercise in despair because it’s so disappointing. But I had the benefit of an oral history, and it was as if I had a roadmap to trace me from where I am here presently to Papa Renty. And so, it’s a gift, and I have been gifted in so many ways, not only with firstly having the strong oral history, but being able to document that we were talking about Papa Renty even before the daguerreotypes were discovered. I have a book that’s written by my now 37-year-old adult daughter who talks about … She and my mom wrote this, her first book report in fourth grade. And she wrote in the book that this is “Dedicated to my little sister so she will always know where she came from,” but it’s a story about Papa Renty. And it’s written and it’s all documented. Her fourth grade book report, she and my mom said … I didn’t even know at the time they were working on it. But when she brought it home, I saved it and I have it to this day, and that’s […] because of who this man was to us. And other things that … I had the presence of mind to record my mom talking about some of this before she died. So it’s like, I’m not trying to fit a story here to the daguerreotypes. I have proof that even before we knew they existed, this is who we were. This is who we celebrated. This is who we revered. And just like I said, good fortune has shined on me. The fact that just in even the legal aspects of the case, I think about how I ran into Attorney Crump, and while we’re standing taking a selfie, how I managed to talk to him and convince him to take a look at this case, and then how he puts an amazing dream team together with Michael Koskoff and the man who has defended Michael Jackson’s family, the Sandy Hook family, cases against Alex Jones, another giant in the legal … And they’re all working on this case and it is as important to them as it is to me. I’m just so, like I said, just blessed. The fact that it happened in the state of Massachusetts, a state that in 1782, had abolished slavery. It could have happened in a state where slavery had yet to be abolished. It wouldn’t have made our legal arguments strong. There’s just so much that had to fall in place from Renty to where I sit today to make this the kind of case that I believe will challenge not only the court system, but this nation to come to terms with its dark past and its failure to atone for slavery.
Hrag Vartanian: It’s shocking to me that Harvard, a research institution, wasn’t interested in the story you had to tell.
Tamara Lanier: And when I wrote to Drew Faust, that’s what I said.
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. I mean, it’s shocking to me. But one of the other things that was surprising to me is in some of the literature Harvard has created, there are a number of scholars that are lining up behind Harvard, and I’m wondering why you think that is, or what do you think the responsibility of a scholar is in a story like this?
Tamara Lanier: Harvard would argue that they are the ethical stewards of these images, of the daguerreotypes. I can say that their conduct has been anything other than ethical. And so when you are a premier academic institution, as a Harvard, there is a duty to protect truth, integrity, and ethics and ethical stewardship. And so this case exposes their failure on all levels. I mean, they published a book last year, last October, that gives a false narrative of who these enslaved people were. They knew at the time. We had filed our complaint a year and a half before. They knew who Renty was. And when I say I have been blessed with people in my path and information at my fingertips, two of the people who have helped me with the research to pin things down definitively, one of the persons is a gentleman who did President Barack Obama’s genealogy. And the one person who definitively, has said that I meet and far exceed any legal standard to prove kinship, and she has also told reporters that I am who I say I am when I say that I am Renty’s great-great-great-granddaughter, is the same woman who did Michelle Obama’s genealogy. And so I have heard from historians who have done work in Germany, in Switzerland, and so everyone, historians, who look at this with a non-biased eye, all say that this is an amazing missing link to history. This is an amazing find. And Harvard, the keeper of the images, is silent or in denial. And I never understood why.
Hrag Vartanian: That’s crazy. So now I’m wondering, because the image has become popular and has been used in a lot of artworks and other projects, I’m curious what you feel when you see the image being used that way, or if the family’s talked about it at all.
Tamara Lanier: Yeah. And we have, and we really wrestle with this. And I sit with my girls who are now young ladies in their own right. We talk about, more so than Renty, I’m troubled by Delia and how I see her exploited. There is just a haunting gaze about Delia that just haunts me to my core. I feel when I look in Delia’s eyes that she lived a life of trauma, and I think about that moment. And granted, I know that there were many traumatic moments for enslaved women, but when I think about that moment when she is forced to disrobe in front of her father, and contrary, as I have said, to Harvard, the only person who was not in the know that afternoon was Louis Agassiz because he thought he was dealing with what he expected or what he felt to be Black inferiority. But those were educated people, at least I know Renty and Delia were, and they knew exactly what was going on. I’m certain of that. And so he was perhaps the only one not in the know. But again, being forced into that kind of relationship with your father, what impact does that have on that familiar relationship, that father and daughter relationship? And so I hurt for Delia for that reason and I always felt like her exploitation and the other young woman who … It was far worse than the men because of their young, tender age and what they were forced to do, and again, about the destruction of the Black family and the breaking down of relationships. And so I think about re-victimization when the image is shown, but there’s also a part of me that believes that if you don’t see the extent of the harm, you can’t measure or have an understanding for the level of healing that is needed or the need for healing is needed. And I say that … When we’ve had these conversations with other reporters, I talk about Emmett Till and I often say that I firmly believe that it Emmett Till had a closed casket, the world would never know his name today. And I know how much for that mother looking at her child in his condition in that casket, but she rose above that and wanted the world to know how much she was hurting, and the only way to know that is to see his face. And I also … I’m a retired probation officer. I’ve worked in the courts. I’ve written pre-sentence investigations where you have to make a recommendation based on what the evidence and the crime is and you have to look at crime scene photos in order to make that kind of assessment, just as jurors have to view the ugliness of what happened in order to render a proper decision. So I struggle with it because if you were to ask Delia, she would say, “I’d want clothes on.” If you would ask some of the enslaved men, they would say, “I don’t want to be viewed that way.” But I think that to understand the impact of slavery and the inhumanity of it, I think rises above that to where it forces us to have the discussion and forces us to look, if that makes sense.
Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, absolutely, it does. I mean, you’ve been so generous with your time, Tammy. I just have one last question, which is, if you were to think a little bit about the idea of, let’s say these photographs are returned to you, your family. Do you ever imagine what that would feel like or what that would mean? And I also want to tie this together with the hearing that happened recently just a little bit, if you could talk a little bit about that, the context of that, because this was an opportunity to actually have Harvard listen to you. And so can you tell about a little bit about those feelings? Because I know it’s all complicated. I mean, it’s been a 12-year odyssey, frankly, and hopefully it will end soon, but if you could just give us a little bit of insight.
Tamara Lanier: Yeah. Well, this is, I think I can honestly say, the first time that I felt heard and that for the first time we have been able to present an argument in its entirety and have it being seriously considered. What we are saying is that in the course of jurisprudence or in our, not only our legal, our civil, during civil proceedings, there’s this notion that if you have done something wrong, if you’ve broken the law, if you have committed a tortious act, you are considered the wrongdoer and you are not allowed to benefit from the fruits of your misdeed. And so that’s just common jurisprudence. That’s just basic in law, that you don’t reward the wrongdoer with the fruits of their misdeed or their illegal act or their tortious act. And so while our case is very complicated, it really is very simple in that when Harvard commissioned these images, when they commissioned the daguerreotypes, they did it in violation of the commonwealth law, the law of Massachusetts. These daguerreotypes are the plunders of slavery. Massachusetts not only abolished slavery, but it went on to say that enslaved people, that Blacks have the right to seek legal redress, that Blacks have the right to own property. So what Harvard did was wrong on so many levels. And so then, not only do they enjoy the fruits of their illegal act or their misconduct or their tortious act, but now they are profiting by putting Renty’s images on covers of books that they sell for $60 a clip. And these books tell a false narrative as to who Renty is, and that’s easily proven and easily disputed. But because Harvard says it, people just assume it to be so, and no one questions Harvard because they’re Harvard. And so while it’s very complicated and legal because Harvard is arguing not that these daguerreotypes, which are something very similar to a small cell phone, it’s a small piece of glass, and that is what we’re fighting over, not the duplication of the images and the pictures, but it’s the actual daguerreotypes that we argue because Renty and Delia were violated, that because a crime was committed against them, because a tort was committed against them in the capturing of this daguerreotype property, that Renty and Delia have an interest in this property. And that because I, as their lineal descendant, which I can prove, not only have standing to bring to claim, but also have a right to generational inheritance. And so it raises all of these thorny issues. But the reality is I’m not that many generations removed from slavery. My mother was raised in the household with her enslaved ancestors. My mother grew up with people who had been born and lived as slaves. So slavery is not that far from me, though people would like to think it’s something that’s way off. No, it isn’t, and I can prove it. So I believe that Renty and Delia had a property interest in what was stolen from them, and I believe that because I am a lineal descendant, that I share that property interest. I believe because what Harvard did was illegal, they’re tortfeasors, and that tortfeasors can’t be rewarded with the fruit of their tort. So I think that while it’s very complicated, I think it’s very simple, if that makes sense.
Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. And I think what I’m noticing is how you’re continuing Papa Rent’s tradition of educating people because I think you’re educating us about some of these things in a way that I think we couldn’t even imagine, because I think … What sounds like it would be a simple property issue is actually much, much more complicated.
Tamara Lanier: Yeah. It is. It is. But this is one thing that slavery has robbed people of color of, their right to generational inheritance. Just as non-minorities and so many of my friends can talk about the Taylor family and the Agassiz family and how that generational inheritance has benefited them today. I can’t say that. I can’t say that, because slavery interrupted that for me. So I’m arguing for a chance to inherit the property that should belong to my ancestors.
Hrag Vartanian: Right. I mean, just like the chairs of the Taylor family.
Tamara Lanier: You know, it would be nice.
Hrag Vartanian: It’s like, you don’t have these daguerreotypes.
Tamara Lanier: I didn’t get that generational inheritance. Those things weren’t gifted to me.
Hrag Vartanian: That’s right. Well, thank you, Tammy, for your time and for sharing this story and making us understand really how deeply interwoven this is in your family and generations of your family and how important is it and why you continue to fight. So thank you so much.
Tamara Lanier: Thank you. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share.
Hrag Vartanian: I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Co-founder and Editor Chief of Hyperallergic. Thanks for listening.
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