Norwich woman says Harvard ‘shamelessly’ profits from her slave ancestors’ photos

March 20, 2019

Norwich resident Tamara Lanier claims that Harvard University has “shamelessly” profited from iconic images of two 19th century slaves who she says are her ancestors.

In a lawsuit filed in Massachusetts state court Wednesday, Lanier says Harvard has ignored her requests to turn over the photos. She asks the university to relinquish them to her as the rightful owner, and pay unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and legal fees. She is being represented by law firms in Boston, Bridgeport, New York and Tallahassee, Fla.

Lanier, a retired Connecticut chief probation officer, claims she is suing Harvard “for its wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation of photographic images of the patriarch of her family — a man known as Renty — and his daughter, Delia, both of whom were enslaved in South Carolina.”

A Harvard spokesman said in an email response Wednesday afternoon: “The University has not yet been served, and with that, is in no position to comment on this lawsuit filing.”

Lanier said in a telephone interview with The Day on Wednesday evening, following a news conference in New Yok City, that the story of both her family’s history and Harvard’s role in perpetuating stereotypes and debunked myths of African-Americans’ heritage “is just so encompassing.” She said she is trying to get Harvard to recognize and embrace the story that has been in her family for 160 years.

“It involves so much,” Lanier said of the lawsuit. “I think this complaint will force this country to re-evaluate history, because so much is left to be told about Harvard and its complicity and (Harvard researcher Louis) Agassiz and his hate-science that has been reflected all over the world.”

Lanier claims the images were commissioned in 1850 by Agassiz, Harvard’s leading scientist, “as part of his quest to ‘prove’ black people’s inherent biological inferiority and thereby justify their subjugation, exploitation and segregation.”

Renty and Delia were stripped naked and forced to pose for the daguerreotype images “without consent, dignity, or compensation,” the suit claims. She blamed Harvard, which she said “elevated” Agassiz to high positions and supported him “as he promoted and legitimized the poisonous myth of white superiority.”

The suit claims that Harvard discovered the daguerreotypes in 1976 and realized their value as the earliest known photographs of slaves and “commenced a decades-long campaign to sanitize the history of the images and exploit them for prestige and profit.” She claims Harvard requires contracts and a “hefty licensing fee” to anyone wishing to use the images and threatens lawsuits for use of the images without permission.

“In other words,” Lanier states, “Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world with an endowment of 40 book “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery.”

The suit says Lanier attended a 2017 conference hosted by Harvard on universities’ connections to slavery, that included Renty’s image projected on a large screen and used on the program’s cover, with a statement describing it as an image associated with scientific research Lanier calls “dishonest” and “manipulative.”

On Oct. 27, 2017, Lanier wrote to Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust explaining her research that confirmed her as Renty’s and Delia’s descendant, and formally requested the daguerreotypes be “immediately relinquished” to her. She writes in the lawsuit that Harvard’s response was “nonresponsive and deceptive.”

The suit claims Lanier is the rightful owner of the daguerreotypes and that Harvard’s ownership was “acquired through fraud and/or other misconduct.” The suit seeks unspecified compensatory damages “for emotional distress, humiliation, anxiety and other emotional pain and suffering,” punitive damages and legal fees.