Tamara Lanier is suing Harvard University for daguerreotypes of her ancestors as well as damages. Lanier claims the photos in question are of her great-great-great grandfather Renty and his daughter, Delia. Lanier lives in Norwich, Connecticut, but the man and woman she says are her ancestors were enslaved in South Carolina.
“Slavery was abolished 156 years ago, but Renty and Delia remain enslaved in Cambridge, Massachusetts” the lawsuit states.
Here’s What You Need to Know:
1. The Mid 19th-century Professor who Took the Photos was Studying Race
The Photos Were Taken By Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a biologist who became a professor at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1847. He became a proponent of polygenism, the theory that the human race has plural points of origin.
While Agassiz maintained his research was distinct from his political beliefs, according to Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library, “Defenders of slavery used polygenism to maintain that the different races were completely and genetically distinct and that slavery was a natural condition for an inferior race.”
In 1950, UNESCO’s declaration on race dispelled polygenism: “Scientists have reached general agreement in recognising that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, Homo sapiens. It is further generally agreed among scientists that all men are probably derived from the same common stock; and that such differences as exist between different groups of mankind are due to the operation of evolutionary factors of differentiation …”
2. That Lanier is Suing for the Actual Photographs is Significant
Slavery was legal at the time the photos were taken. Lanier’s attorneys argue that Harvard is violating the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, by holding the images. The photos were made in 1850 when Harvard scientists were touring South Carolina plantations in search of African-born enslaved people. Lanier’s lawsuit argues that because Agassiz did not have the subjects’ consent for the photographs, for which they were made to remove their clothing, that Agassiz never legally owned the images in order to grant the right of ownership to Havard University, where the photos were rediscovered in storage in 1976, reports the AP.
“It is unprecedented in terms of legal theory and reclaiming property that was wrongfully taken,” Benjamin Crump, one of Ms. Lanier’s lawyers said, according to the New York Times. “Renty’s descendants may be the first descendants of slave ancestors to be able to get their property rights.”
Lanier’s lawsuit states she is suing for the “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of the photos. “To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit says. “The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered.”
Harvard charges a licensing fee to reproduce the images and used Renty’s photo for marketing materials of a 2017 conference. The image has a dramatic effect.
It appears on the cover of a Harvard publication From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery that the university sells for $40.
Lanier’s lawsuit asks Harvard to “Acknowledge her ancestry and compensate her an unspecified sum for damages,” reports The Root.
“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, Renty’s great-great-great granddaughter, said in a statement to The Root.
3. The Lawsuit was Filed Wednesday, and Harvard has not yet Responded
Benjamin Crump, co-lead counsel for Lanier, said “Without slavery, this photo would not exist, nor would the racist theories that led to its creation.”
“By denying Ms. Lanier’s superior claim to the daguerreotypes,” the complaint states, “Harvard is perpetuating the systematic subversion of black property rights that began during slavery and continued for a century thereafter.”
In recent years, Georgetown Univerity started giving admissions advantages to descendants of enslaved people who were sold to fund the school, and Harvard School of Law got rid of it shield based on a slaveholding family crest.
4. Lanier Says Renty is her Great-great-great Grandfather
“By contesting Ms. Lanier’s claim of lineage, Harvard is shamelessly capitalizing on the intentional damage done to black Americans’ genealogy by a century’s worth of policies that forcibly separated families, erased slaves’ family names, withheld birth and death records, and criminalized literacy,” the complaint states.
Lanier knows family stories of her ancestor, called “Papa” Renty. She says he is her family’s patriarch.
“‘Despite the oral history, it could be hard for Lanier to definitively prove she is a descendant of Renty,’ Furman University Professor Gregg Hecimovich told the Times. ‘It would be very hard to make a slam-dunk case that she believes she has,'” reports NPR.
5. Lanier’s Attorney Ben Crump is an Accomplished Civil Rights Lawyer
“Mr. Crump has handled many high-profile civil rights cases, including those involving the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Corey Jones. He is a frequent contributor to Time and has published several high-profile articles that address some of the civil rights issues we face today,” according to his website.
Crump was a part of Jay-Z’s Docuseries Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Lanier has asked for a trial jury and her lawyers cite eight different legal claims in her suit. Her case could have ramifications in the growing debate surrounding reparations for slavery in the US.