In 1850, a racist Harvard scientist took pictures of slaves. An alleged descendant lodges a complaint.
Tamara Lanier, a retired probation officer from Norwich, Connecticut, says she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Renty Taylor, the slave girl pictured naked alongside her daughter. The photos were taken in 1850 at the behest of Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, who was a proponent of “polygenism”, a pseudoscientific theory that people of African descent had no common ancestors with other peoples and were therefore inferior. They have been in the possession of Harvard ever since.
“We are pleased with the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Tamara Lanier’s case against Harvard University for the horrific exploitation of her black ancestors, as this decision will give Ms. Lanier her day in court to defend memory of Renty,” Lanier’s attorneys said. , Ben Crump and Josh Koskoff, said in a statement.
Harvard did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although it told Reuters it was reviewing the decision.
Lanier grew up hearing stories about Taylor, whom his family called Papa Renty – how he was abducted in the Congo River Basin and learned to read even though it was illegal – long before she found the footage.
Agassiz, to prove his theory of polygenism, had searched for specimens, enslaved African-born blacks.
It was not easy; the United States had banned the importation of Africans in 1807, so by 1850 most enslaved blacks were born in the country, and many had at least some European ancestry.
Harvard has remains of 7,000 Native Americans and slaves, leaked report says
But on a trip through South Carolina, Agassiz discovered an enslaved man whom other slaves called “the Black African” – Renty Taylor. Taylor and her daughter Delia, who may have been underage at the time, were brought into a studio and forced to strip and pose nude. Agassiz used the resulting daguerreotypes, an early form of photography, to push his theories.
The images were “lost” for decades until Harvard rediscovered them in its collections at the Peabody Museum in 1976. By then, its scientists were no longer using them to push racist theories, but the school still uses and, according to Lanier’s lawyers, still charging others a fee for using them. As recently as 2017, the images were used for a book cover. In 2014, the school used images of the two Taylors for promotional materials for a conference, seen in the background of the photo below.
Lanier became aware of the images about 10 years ago during genealogical research.
“In addition to the family resemblance, we saw pride and determination” on their faces, Lanier told The Washington Post last year. But the circumstances in which they were photographed made her sick.
In his 2019 lawsuit, Lanier said Harvard refused to respond to his requests for information about the daguerreotypes and how Harvard intended to use them, which caused him emotional distress. Harvard also refused to recognize his ancestral claim after Lanier shared his genealogical research with the school.
A lower court had previously dismissed Lanier’s lawsuit. Thursday, the state Supreme Court partially overturned that decision, ruling that a jury could reasonably decide that Harvard’s “extreme and outrageous conduct” had caused Lanier emotional distress.
“Harvard’s past complicity in the repugnant actions by which the daguerreotypes were produced informs its current responsibilities to the descendants of the individuals coerced into having their half-naked images captured in the daguerreotypes,” Judge Scott Kafker wrote in his opinion. .
He also said she had no ownership of the images since she was not a descendant of the photographer or the owners of the photograph. The subjects of the photos and their descendants usually don’t have property rights, but Koskoff, one of Lanier’s lawyers, argued that this was an exception, likening them to ‘revenge porn’ modern or sex trafficking images. On this point, the court disagreed.
Lanier’s attorneys said they would continue to sue Harvard and try to “repair the damage and degradation they have caused to Tamara Lanier, her ancestors and all other people of color exploited by [Harvard].”
Harvard’s Peabody Collection is also the subject of another controversy over its continued ownership of the human remains of Native Americans and African Americans who may have been enslaved, despite a 1990 federal law requiring the repatriation of good number of remains. A draft report from a commission studying the remains was leaked in May, revealing there were more than 7,000 individuals in its collection.
In April, Harvard released a report on its involvement in slavery and committed $100 million to redress the legacy of those injustices.