BOSTON — In 1850, a Swiss-born Harvard University professor commissioned what are believed to be the earliest photos of Americans slaves.
The images, known as daguerreotypes and taken in a South Carolina studio, are crude and dehumanizing – and they were used to promote racist beliefs.
Among the photographed: an African man named Renty and his daughter Delia. They were stripped naked and photographed from several angles. Professor Louis Agassiz, a biologist, had the photos taken to support an erroneous theory called polygenism that he and others used to argue African-Americans were inferior to white people.
Now, a woman who claims to be a direct descendant of that father and child – Tamara Lanier, the great-great-great granddaughter of Renty – is suing Harvard over the photos.
She’s accused Harvard of the wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of the images, ignoring her requests to “stop licensing the pictures for the university’s profit” and misrepresenting the ancestor she calls “Papa Renty.”
The university still owns the photos. Lanier, who resides in Connecticut and filed the suit against Harvard in Middlesex County Superior Court on Wednesday, is seeking an unspecified amount of damages from Harvard. She’s also demanding that the university give her family the photos.
The suit, which lays out eight different legal claims, cites federal law over property rights, the Massachusetts law for the recovery of personal property and a separate state law about the unauthorized use of a name or picture for advertising purposes.
It also singles out the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, arguing that Harvard’s ongoing possession of the photos “reflects and is a continuation of core components or incidents of slavery.”
“For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering – it’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family,” Lanier said in a statement provided to USA TODAY by the law firm representing her.
Who was Renty?
She called Renty a “proud man who, like so many enslaved men, women and children, endured years of unimaginable horrors.”
“Harvard’s refusal to honor our family’s history by acknowledging our lineage and its own shameful past is an insult to Papa Renty’s life and memory.”
The suit further claims Harvard has “never sufficiently repudiated Agassiz and his work.”
Harvard did not immediately return a request for comment shortly after the suit was filed.
Lanier is represented by the law firms of national civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump of Florida, who has worked high-profile cases for the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, as well as Connecticut-based attorney Michael Koskoff.
The photos taken in 1850 of Renty, Delia and 15 other slaves disappeared for more than a century but were rediscovered in 1976 in the attic of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
One of the photos of Renty, showing him waist-up as he looks defiantly into the camera with a straight face, has four decades later turned into an iconic image of slavery in the U.S.
The lawsuit argues that Harvard has used the Renty images as “a source of income.” The image is on the the cover of a 2017 book, “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery,” published by the Peabody Museum and sold online by Harvard for $40.
The same photo was also displayed on the program for a 2017 conference that Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advance Study hosted on the school’s relationship with slavery.
According to Lanier’s attorneys, Harvard requires that people sign a contract in order to view the photos and pay a licensing fee to the university to reproduce the images.
“These images were taken under duress and Harvard has no right to keep them, let alone profit from them,” Koskoff said. “They are the rightful property of the descendants of Papa Renty.”
He said Harvard refuses to “accept responsibility for this grotesque chapter in its history and continues to misuse these images,” forcing Renty’s family to rely on the university to compel Harvard “to do the right thing.”
The suit tries to chart how Lanier, a former chief probation officer in Norwich, Connecticut, has on multiple occasion sought to engage the university about the photos to no avail.
How the lawsuit began
Her attorneys say it began in 2011 when she wrote a letter to Harvard’s president at the time, Drew Faust, whose “evasive response” did not provide an opportunity to discuss returning the photos to Lanier’s family.
Five years later, she said she reached out to the student-run Harvard Crimson newspaper, but that its editor relayed that the story had been “killed” due to concerns by the Peabody Museum.
In the university’s use of the images, plaintiffs contend that Harvard has “avoided the fact that the daguerreotypes were part of a study, overseen by a Harvard professor, to demonstrate racial inferiority of blacks.”
Agassiz was considered one of the greatest biologists and geologists in the world in the mid-19th century. But his record has become problematic over time. He was an opponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. And in fiercely subscribing to polygenism, he held the now-debunked belief that white people and African-Americans came from different species.
The photos he commissioned were taken by J.T. Zealy in a studio in Columbia, South Carolina. He published them a month later in an article titled “The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races.”
Agassiz’s legacy still lives on at Harvard. He founded the school’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and his wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, also a Harvard researcher of natural history, was founder and the first president of Radcliffe College, now the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women. There’s a a street in Cambridge named after Agassiz and a Harvard theater, the Agassiz House.
Lanier has spent reach years researching and talking to genealogical experts who she said has validated her ancestry.
A 2018 article in the Norwich Bulletin says that Lanier began studying her lineage after her mother died in 2010 to follow up on family stories she heard about Papa Renty. She worked with Boston genealogist Chris Child, who is known for tracing ancestors of Barack Obama.
According to the newspaper, Lanier said that she believes she can trace her great-grandfather, named Renty Taylor and then Renty Thompson, to a plantation near Columbia, South Carolina, owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor. This is where the photos are believed to have been taken.
She said she started providing Harvard evidence that she’s a descendant of Renty beginning in 2012 but that the school has “never looked at my material.”
The Bulletin quoted Pamela Gerardi, the Peabody Museum’s director of external relations, who described the photos as “extremely delicate” and well cared for.
“We anticipate they will remain here in perpetuity,” she said at the time. “That’s what museums do.”