Descendant of enslaved man challenges use of daguerreotypes owned by Harvard.
In March, Tamara Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, disputing their ownership of daguerreotypes depicting enslaved people taken in 1850. Lanier claims the images owned and used by Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography portray her ancestors. Because Harvard continues to profit from the use of images of Lanier’s family, she contends in her lawsuit that they symbolically “remain enslaved.” These daguerreotypes are considered to be the earliest-known images of enslaved people in the United States, but may perpetuate the horrendous legacy of the degrading system by denying direct descendants of enslaved people ownership of their histories.
Lanier grew up hearing stories about her great-great-great-grandfather from her mother; they called him “Papa Renty.” Papa Renty was born in Congo but was enslaved on a plantation in South Carolina. Lanier and her mother shared pride in the fact that Papa Renty taught himself and other enslaved people to read; he was known for secretly reading the Bible aloud to others. As Lanier’s mother was dying in 2011, she made her daughter promise to document this history. During the research process, a friend of Lanier’s found pictures of Papa Renty online, owned by Harvard University.
The images paint a bleak picture. Renty and his daughter Delia are shown stripped naked in a South Carolina photo studio. According to Lanier’s lawsuit, through this process, the photos were taken from several angles “without consent, dignity or compensation.” Rather, Renty and Delia were treated like research subjects and completely devoid of humanity in their treatment.
In fact, the two enslaved people were research subjects for Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. This Swiss professor was one of Harvard’s leading scientists. He commissioned the daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia as part of a research project intended to support the theory of “polygenism.” This was the idea that people of different races had evolved separately, fabricating scientific legitimacy for white supremacy. In this way, the images of Renty and Delia were intended to demonstrate their “inherent biological inferiority and thereby justify their subjugation, exploitation and segregation,” according to the lawsuit.
Behind this heinous mistreatment and message, Lanier claims, is the university itself. Harvard not only supported Agassiz’s research and placed him at the highest level of academia and prestige, but Harvard also continues to avoid acknowledging their role in the issue. “I want them to tell the true story of who he is, and I want them to acknowledge their complicity,” Lanier explained.
Images of Renty and Delia have been used by the university on several occasions. Notably, they appeared on the cover of a textbook, the 13th anniversary edition of “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery” that sold for $40 per copy. Beyond this, Harvard charges a licensing fee to anyone who wants to reproduce the images. Without a doubt, Harvard has intentionally and continuously benefited from these images taken without consent of the subjects.
Lanier’s lawsuit raises important questions about ownership and ancestry in a country that is plagued by a shameful history of slavery. Universities including Harvard must consider the roles that they played in this history, whether it be from money made in the slave trade or objectionable work done by faculty members. Ben Crump, one of Lanier’s attorneys, explained that “169 years later, Harvard is telling Renty’s descendant that he still does not own his image — he still is a slave.”
This lawsuit comes at a time when Tulsa has been challenged to recognize its dark history of racism with the centennial of the Race Massacre just around the corner. Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre decimated Black Wall Street and continues to haunt Greenwood. Our city too must consider the role of racism in its history. In the same way that Lanier challenges Harvard’s profits from images of Renty and Delia, Tulsa reconsiders figures like W. T. Brady.
Brady was involved in the Tulsa Race Massacre and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as a founding member of Tulsa. Although Brady Street was named after this controversial figure, the city has taken measures to dissociate from his legacy. In 2013, the name of the street was changed to W. B. Brady for the famous Civil War photographer, rather than the city’s founder. Discussions about racism and slavery necessarily confront us with the reality of its perpetual legacy and consequences that are still felt today.