Harvard takes advantage of the first pictures of slaves, according to a lawsuit

Harvard University has "shamelessly" taken advantage of the photos of two 19th-century slaves while ignoring requests for restitution of their photos to descendants of slaves, according to a complaint filed Wednesday.

Tamara Lanier of Norwich, Connecticut, is suing the Ivy League School for "unjustified seizure, possession and expropriation" of images that she believes represent two of her ancestors. His complaint, filed in court in the state of Massachusetts, requires that Harvard immediately surrender the photos, recognize his ancestry and pay an undetermined sum in damages.

Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain said the university "has not been serviced yet and is not in a position to comment on this complaint."

At the center of the case is a series of 1850 daguerreotypes, a type of youth photo, taken from two slaves in South Carolina, identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia. Both were laid bare-chested and photographed from several angles. Images are thought to be the oldest known pictures of American slaves.

They were sponsored by Louis Agassiz, a biologist at Harvard, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the United States. According to the complaint, Agassiz reportedly met Renty and Delia during a plantation tour in search of "pure" slaves born in Africa.

"For Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens," says the suit. "The violence of forcing them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred, let alone counted."

The pursuit attacks Harvard for its "exploitation" of Renty's image at a conference in 2017 and for other purposes. He says Harvard capitalized on the photos by demanding a "heavy" license fee to reproduce the images. He also draws attention to a book sold by Harvard at $ 40 with the cover portrait of Renty. The series, entitled "From site to view: anthropology, photography and the power of imagery", explores the use of photography in anthropology.

The lawsuit notably asks Harvard to acknowledge that he bears the responsibility for the humiliation of Renty and Delia and that Harvard "has been made complicit in the perpetuation and justification of the". institution of slavery ".

A Harvard museum researcher rediscovered the photos stored in 1976. But Lanier's case states that Agassiz was never legally the owner of the photos because he had not obtained the consent of his subjects and that he had no right to transmit them to Harvard. Instead, says the suit, Lanier is the rightful owner as Renty's closest relative.

The lawsuit also contends that Harvard's continued possession of images violates the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

"Renty is 169 years old according to our calculations," said in an interview her lawyer, Benjamin Crump, one of Lanier's lawyers. "How long will it take before Harvard finally releases Renty?"

Lanier says she grew up hearing stories about Renty transmitted by her mother. The costume says he was enslaved in Columbia, South Carolina, and learned to read himself. He then held secret biblical readings on the plantation. He is described as "small but dominant in the minds of those who knew him".

The lawsuit says that Lanier has checked her genealogical ties with Renty, whom she calls "Papa Renty". She says that he is his great-great-great-great grandfather.

If given photos, Lanier says that she will tell "the real story of who Renty is". But she also hopes that her case will spark a national discussion about race and history.

"This case is important because it will test the moral climate of this country and force this country to take into account its long history of racism," Lanier said at a press conference at the University of New York. Outside the Harvard Club in New York.

Crump, his lawyer, added that the case could allow Harvard to "remove the stain from his legacy" and show that she has the courage "to finally atone for her slavery".

Lanier alleges that she wrote to Harvard in 2011 to clarify her links with Renty. In a letter to Drew Faust, then president of Harvard, Lanier said that she wanted to know more about the images and their use. She was more explicit in 2017, asking Harvard to give up the photos. In both cases, Harvard responded but evaded his requests.

The school used the photos as part of its own efforts to confront its historical ties with slavery. At the 2017 conference titled "Universities and Bondage: A Linked History", Harvard printed Renty's portrait on the program's cover and screened it on a giant screen over the stage .

In the picture, Renty stares at the camera, graying hair and her exposed gaunt frame.

Lanier, who was attending the hearing at the event, said she was stunned by a part of the program describing the origins of the photo but seeming to dismiss her genealogical findings. He said the photo had been taken for Agassiz's research and that "if Agassiz had been cheered, Renty had become invisible again."

The lawsuit alleges that "in challenging Ms. Lanier's lineage claim, Harvard unabashedly capitalizes on the intentional damage done to the genealogy of black Americans by policies of a century-old value that forcibly separating families, erasing family names of slaves, keeping records of births and deaths, and criminalized literacy. "


Follow Collin Binkley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/cbinkley.

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