A Massachusetts court issued its opinion today, June 23, on the landmark case of Tamara Lanier, who sued Harvard University over daguerreotypes of her enslaved ancestors housed at the school’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. In the 91-page document, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted Harvard’s motion to dismiss Lanier’s property-related claims, but upheld those related to the physical and emotional consequences she suffered as a result of Harvard’s actions.
The decision means Lanier can now bring a civil lawsuit against Harvard for its continued reproduction and use of the daguerreotypes, which may constitute “reckless infliction of emotional distress.”
“We conclude that Harvard’s present obligations cannot be divorced from its past abuses,” reads the opinion, written by Associate Justice Scott L. Kafker. In light of Harvard’s “complicity in the horrific actions surrounding the creation of the daguerreotypes,” Kafker continues, the court discerns “a duty on Harvard’s part to take reasonable care in responding to [Lanier].”
“We are faced with an aggrieved plaintiff who has pleaded facts that, if proved, demand a full remedy and nothing less,” the opinion concludes.
Harvard has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
The daguerreotypes were commissioned in 1850 by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, a proponent of polygenism, a pseudoscientific theory that Black and White people have separate biological origins commonly invoked in support of White racial superiority. Fifteen photographs in total, four portraying Lanier’s ancestors Delia and Renty stripped to the waist, were transferred to the Peabody in 1936, where they remained in a wooden cabinet for 40 years before they were rediscovered by a museum researcher who, according to the plaintiff, “expressed concern for the families of the men and women depicted.”
Lanier, who grew up hearing stories about a man named “Papa Renty” — her great-great-great grandfather — came across the images of Renty and his daughter Delia while researching her family’s lineage after her mother’s passing. She asked Harvard to relinquish the daguerreotypes in 2017, a request the university ignored, and in March 2019, Lanier sued the school for wrongful possession and expropriation. A court granted Harvard’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, invoking precedents that establish photographs as “the property of the photographer,” not of the subjects or their ancestors.
But Lanier appealed, and today’s decision is the result of oral arguments heard last November. At the time, Hyperallergic published a special “Free Renty” edition dedicated to the case, featuring 12 scholarly endorsements of Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s amicus brief in support of Lanier.
In the opinion, the court cites not just Harvard’s holdings of the photographs, but its repeated use of the images once the school was aware of Lanier’s objections. The university not only “cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims and disregarded her requests,” but failed to contact her when it published the images on the cover of a book and as part of a related conference.
However, the court ruled unanimously that Harvard was not legally obligated to return the photographs, citing the state’s statute of limitations for such cases and adding that Lanier “has no cognizable property interest in the daguerreotypes.”
Last month, Harvard University published a headline-grabbing report on its legacy of slavery, accompanied by an announcement of a $100 million endowment fund to “redress” that grim part of its history. But the school did not discuss Delia and Renty’s images. Lanier, who saw the report as “an opportunity for Harvard to come clean with all of its past misdeed and all of its past indiscretions,” said she was frustrated by the omission.
Today’s decision offers a glimmer of hope, allowing Lanier to bring the case back to Massachusetts’s Superior Court and hold Harvard accountable.
“This historic win marks one of the first times in United States history a court has ruled that slaves’ descendants can seek accountability for the atrocities to which their family members were subjected over 170 years ago,” said Josh Koskoff, Tamara Lanier’s attorney, in a statement shared with Hyperallergic.
“Harvard is not the rightful owner of these photos and should not profit from them,” Koskoff continued. “As Tamara Lanier and her family have said for years, it is time for Harvard to let Renty and Delia come home.”