Tamara Lanier looked at the photo for the first time, finally putting a face to the man she knew as “Papa Renty.”
For years, she heard the stories that her late mother told about their slave ancestor. Lanier promised she would one day write them down and create a family tree.
And here he was – gray-haired and bare-chested, staring defiantly straight ahead in a photo known as a daguerreotype.
“It was almost like we made eye contact,” Lanier said. “It was an immediate feeling of kinship.”
Lanier describes Renty, born in the Congo in central Africa and a slave in South Carolina, as “larger than life” – someone respected in his community, who taught other slaves how to read despite laws against it and was proud of his African roots.
The photos of Renty and his daughter Delia, taken in the nude in March 1850 against their will for a Harvard University professor, are now the subject of a lawsuit that Lanier, 54, filed against Harvard this week.
Lanier, a Connecticut resident who says she’s Renty’s great-great-great granddaughter, has accused Harvard of the wrongful seizure of the photos, profiting from them and failing to recognize that she’s Renty’s direct descendant. She wants a court to order the photos be given to her family, as well as unspecified monetary damages.
More: Harvard University sued over allegedly profiting from what are believed to be the earliest photos of American slaves
The photos were commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century Harvard biologist, who had daguerreotypes of 13 slaves taken to reinforce his racist belief that white people are superior to African-Americans.
The photos, believed to be the earliest of American slaves, are still owned by Harvard.
Lanier first found them on the internet in 2011. She had been alerted by a friend, an ancestry hobbyist and owner of an ice cream shop, who she talked to at the store. She spent the next few years tapping the expertise of professional genealogists, including one who has traced the lineage of Barack and Michele Obama.
Lanier believes that her lengthy research has validated what her mother said for years, but what Harvard won’t acknowledge – that Renty is her part of her family.
“I’ve talked to people all over the state, all over the country, all over the world, and everybody is just seemingly astonished at this discovery,” Lanier said. “Everybody but Harvard.”
Harvard has not commented on the lawsuit.
Here’s what Lanier say she knows about “Papa Renty.” It’s a combination of oral history from her family and information she says is proven by records.
Lived on a plantation in Columbia, South Carolina
Renty, who Lanier said was around 65 when the Agassiz photos were taken, lived on a cotton plantation in Columbia, South Carolina, that was owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor.
This is where the studio was located where Renty, Delia and others were photographed by a man named J.T. Zealy.
Although Lanier said she has not verified details about his arrival to America, she believes Renty first entered New Orleans from Africa in the late 1700s in a Spanish slave trade ship. He would have been about 15. She believes he later came to South Carolina through the slave market.
She said Renty was purchased in the early 1800s by Col. Thomas Taylor, the father of Benjamin Taylor whose family owned much of the land where Columbia, South Carolina was built. “Papa Renty” took the name Renty Taylor after the Civil War. It’s unknown when he died.
‘The black African’
Lanier said Renty was called “The black African” when he was alive because he was born in Africa, the Congo.
It was rare for U.S. slaves by the mid-19th century, to be born in Africa as opposed to the U.S, she said.
“That’s why I believe they called him ‘The black African,'” she said. “And I also believe that he retained so much of his (African) culture, that he would not conform to the kind of traditional indoctrinations that they were subjecting African-American slaves to.”
A reader, teacher despite anti-literacy laws
Lanier said her mother told her that Renty learned how to read and taught others to read with a book called a “Blue-backed Webster,” also known as a “Blue-backed Speller.”
She said the book remained in her family for years, although it longer is.
Reading would have been risky, even dangerous, for slaves because of anti-literacy laws in South Carolina and other slavery states.
Renty also read from the Bible, Lanier said. She said her mother told her that Renty and other would “worship secretly” among only slaves after they got out of church services with their white owners. She said they wanted to “worship as they pleased.”
Lanier described Renty as a leader within the slave community who was respected. “He was just this larger than life person,” she said, even though he was short and thin physically as shown in the Agassiz photos.
Five generations of Rentys
Lanier said five generations of her family have been named Renty beginning with the Renty who came from Congo and lived at the Taylor plantation in South Carolina.
They were all either Renty Taylor or later Renty Thompson, she said.
Her mother, Mattye Thompson Lanier, died in 2010.
She said the third-generation Renty migrated to Montgomery, Alabama to land owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor. Lanier’s mother, living in Alabama at the time, took part in a summer exchange problem where she traveled to the Northeast. That’s how the family ended up in Connecticut.
Descendant of slave meets descendant of slaveowner
Lanier said in 2015 she met Dr. Edmund Taylor, the great-great-great grandson of Benjamin Taylor, for lunch in Columbia, South Carolina. He was 98 and died two years later.
She said they sat at a table that was hand-carved by a slave from the old Taylor plantation – perhaps by one of her own ancestors. They were eating from Taylor’s dishes.
“It was surreal for many reasons,” Lanier said. “But most specifically, when Dr. Taylor was speaking about Benjamin Franklin Taylor and the history of his family, I felt like I was hearing confirmation and validation of everything my mom had told me from Renty’s perspective.”