Tuesday, February 7, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Harvard Hauled to Court Over Collection of Slavery Images

Claiming that a Harvard scientist exploited her slave ancestors for racist research in the 19th century, a Connecticut woman sued the Ivy League institution for damages Wednesday.

WOBURN, Mass. (CN) - Claiming that a Harvard scientist exploited her slave ancestors for racist research in the 19th century, a Connecticut woman sued the Ivy League institution for damages Wednesday.

“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,” plaintiff Tamara Lanier said in a statement. “Papa Renty was a proud and kind man who, like so many enslaved men, women and children, endured years of unimaginable horrors. Harvard’s refusal to honor our family’s history by acknowledging our lineage and its own shameful past is an insult to Papa Renty’s life and memory.”

Tamara Lanier of Norwich, Connecticut, says she is the great-great-great granddaughter of Renty, a South Carolina slave depicted in this 1850 daguerreotype. The portrait was commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose ideas were used to support the enslavement of Africans in the United States. Lanier filed suit Wednesday in Massachusetts state court, demanding that Harvard turn over the photo and pay damages. (Photo copied by John Shishmanian/Norwich Bulletin via AP)

Represented by Crowe & Mulvey in Boston and the Bridgeport firm Koskoff Koskoff, Lanier calls herself a direct descendant of Renty and his daughter, Lydia, two slaves who lived on a plantation in South Carolina.

In the winter of 1850, she says, Harvard professor Louis Agassiz was conducting research on the supposed genetic inferiority of blacks as compared to whites when he commissioned a Columbia photography studio to take naked portraits of Renty and Lydia from every angle.

Like many backers of slavery and later segregation, Agassiz used the daguerrotypes to support the theory of polygenism, which claimed that different races of human had separate ancestors.

Though that theory has been long debunked, Lanier says Harvard’s profiting from Agassiz’s dehumanizing work has continued into the 21st century.

In addition to demanding a heft licensing fee from any who would use the images of Renty, Harvard plastered the slave’s image on the 2017 cover of its 30th anniversary edition of “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery.”

“These photographs make it clear that Harvard benefited from slavery then and continues to benefit now,” Ben Crump, one of Lanier’s attorneys, said in a statement. “By my calculation, Renty is 169 years a slave. When will Harvard finally set him free. Without slavery, this photo would not exist, nor would the racist theories that led to its creation. We cannot erase the wrongs of the past or the legacies of slavery within higher education, but we can forge a new path of respect, dignity and equality moving forward. Returning the images would be a first step in the right direction."

In addition to damages, Lanier demands that the daguerreotypes be turned over to her family and that Harvard publicly acknowledge its historic role in promoting racism through the study of polygenism. The complaint is filed in Middlesex Superior Court.

“Responsibility for that crime lies squarely with Harvard, which elevated Agassiz to the highest echelons of academia and steadfastly supported him as he promoted and legitimized the poisonous myth of white superiority,” the complaint states. “Harvard has never reckoned with that grotesque chapter in its history, let alone atoned for it.”

A spokesman for Harvard University did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.