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Black Woman Sues Harvard Over Slave Photos of Her Ancestors

She alleged that the historical university unfairly profits and exploits images of her family members.

Black Woman Sues Harvard Over Slave Photos of Her Ancestors
The architecture of the famous Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, USA with its brick buildings and banners. | Credit: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva / Shutterstock.com

Tamara Lanier, a Connecticut woman who said she is related to two 19th-century slaves, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Harvard University for the rights and ownership of images of her ancestors.

According to The Boston Globe, court documents claim the Ivy League school has been exploiting and profiting from images of Lanier’s great-great-great grandfather Renty and his daughter, Delia, both slaves in South Carolina.

“Slavery was abolished 156 years ago, but Renty and Delia remain enslaved in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” reads the lawsuit. “Their images, like their bodies before, remain subject to control and appropriation by the powerful, and their familial identities are denied to them.”

Harvard reportedly gained possession of the black-and-white images in 1850. They are extremely rare daguerreotypes, early imagery produced by employing an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapor, and believed to be the first pictures of American slaves.

Notes found with the photos suggest the subjects were born in Africa although importation of slaves was banned four decades before the images were taken. The father-daughter duo appeared nude in the photographs as a part of scientist Louis Agassiz’s quest to “prove” that Black people were inferior to Whites.

Since obtaining the images, the university has reprinted them in books and has licensed them for exhibitions and conferences about slave history.

“For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering,” Lanier said in a statement. “It’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family.”

Lanier’s relatives kept an oral history of the male slave. Through those stories, scholarly information and the help of Boston-based genealogists, she was able to trace ancestry, the Norwich Bulletin reported in July 2018.

The plaintiff alleged that she wrote letters to Harvard in 2011 and 2017 outlining her familial link to Renty. First, she asked what would happen with the photos and then she demanded they be given to her family. Although Lanier said the university responded to her letters, there were no grants on either of her requests.

Jonathan Swain, a Harvard spokesman, told the Boston newspaper that the historical school “has not yet been served, and with that is in no position to comment on this complaint.” Lanier is seeking an unspecified amount of damages.

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