Woman Sues Harvard For Photos of Enslaved Ancestors

By Tiarra Mukherjee Mar 21, 2019

For more than a hundred years, photographs of an enslaved African man named Renty and his daughter Delia have sat in the possession of Harvard University and been used in various ways, including on the cover of a book published by Harvard University Press. The images, commissioned by the university in 1850, were taken in South Carolina by a biology professor who was trying to prove the supposed inferiority of Black people. Now, Massachusetts-based Tamara Lanier, who says the man in the photos is her great-great-great grandfather, is suing Harvard to take possession of the 19th century daguerreotypes. As reported in a March 20 Reuters article, Lanier’s lawsuit accuses the university of profiting from the photos of her ancestors.

The photos, among the earliest known images of enslaved Americans, were taken as part of a study by Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz. Lanier said Harvard celebrated its former professor who studied “racist pseudoscience” and monetized photos that were taken without Renty or his daughter’s consent. She reportedly hopes her lawsuit will “test the moral climate of this country and force this country to reckon with its long history of racism.”

In addition to gaining possession of the photos, Lanier seeks compensation for emotional distress and Harvard’s acknowledgement that it was “complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.” 

Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain told The Associated Press that the university “has not yet been served, and with that is in no position to comment on this complaint.” 

Harvard is the latest of Ivy League schools to come into question for profitting from slavery. In 2017 Georgetown University apologized for selling 272 Black people in 1838 to pay off debt. And in 2016, Harvard Law School abandoned its official seal, which was based on the crest of a slave owner whose contributions helped establish the school’s first professorship.