Last December, and for the second time, Harvard University filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Tamara Lanier, a Black woman seeking ownership of daguerreotypes of her enslaved ancestors held in the school’s Peabody Museum. But Lanier’s suit, in which she alleges that she suffered emotionally as a result of the school’s retention of the images and its conduct surrounding her claims, will now forge ahead.
In a hearing today, April 13, the Middlesex County Superior Court in New Jersey rejected Harvard University’s motion to dismiss and its request that Lanier amend sections of her complaint. Last summer, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court established that Harvard is not legally obligated to return the photographs — effectively dismissing Lanier’s property claims — but ruled unanimously that she could pursue a case related to the physical and emotional consequences she suffered. In that ruling, the court opined that Harvard “cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims and disregarded her requests,” determinations invoked today by Lanier’s representatives as the basis for claims of “negligent or reckless infliction of emotional distress.”
Now, Lanier’s legal team may seek possession of the daguerreotypes via other means; namely, by claiming equitable jurisdiction — essentially, a court’s responsibility to uphold fairness and justice — rather than legal grounds for their restitution.
“Even in this precise moment, in this courtroom today, Harvard is furthering Ms. Lanier’s suffering and emotional damage,” said attorney Benjamin Crump during today’s hearing.
The photographs of Papa Renty and his daughter Delia were commissioned in 1850 by Louis Agassiz — a Harvard professor and, among other things, a proponent of pseudoscientific theories linking biology to White racial superiority. A total of 15 images taken by Joseph T. Zealy, including four of Lanier’s ancestors stripped to the waist, were acquired by the Peabody Museum in 1936. They remained in storage there until they were recovered by a museum researcher 40 years later. In 2019, after demanding the return of the photos “to the point of ad nauseam,” in Lanier’s own words, she sued the university over wrongful possession, demanding that they hand over the images and pay her punitive damages — to no avail. The school allegedly included the photos in a book and conference without informing Lanier or seeking her consent.
Harvard University has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
In today’s hearing, Harvard doubled down on its position. The school’s counsel argued that the return of the photographs to Lanier should not constitute an acceptable form of relief — citing the 2022 ruling denying her property rights — and requested that this possibility be thrown out before the case goes to trial.
But Lanier’s attorneys were unconvinced. “We try to respect the Supreme Court ruling and they said there’s no legal claim,” Crump said. “However, if I’m speaking truthfully on behalf of Ms. Lanier, that was the justice she sought and she promised her dying mother those things. We believe if given her day in court the jury will decide what damages are allowed to this Black woman who is doing what slaves were never meant to do, which is to trace their roots.”
Judge Barry-Smith ultimately denied Harvard’s initial motion to strike “any matter” from the complaint, a win for Lanier, and urged both parties to move along the stages of discovery and pre-trial for the case, deferring the question of relief to a more advanced stage.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the hearing came in response to Harvard’s suggestion that it retain the daguerreotypes and, as the school has said in previous statements, “explore an appropriate home” for them.
“Nobody would agree that the Nazis were in the best position to educate society on the evils of the Holocaust,” Crump said. “And yet in America we say Harvard, because it is Harvard, even though it was complicit, they’re the best to keep the daguerreotypes and educate the public on how bad they were.”
A trial date has not yet been set.
Editor’s note 4/14/23 5:28pm EST: This article has been updated with a quote from a statement by Harvard University.