Slave photos fuel lawsuit against Harvard

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Harvard has been "dismissive and arrogant" in refusing to allow her to "at long last, bring Renty and Delia home", the suit adds.

A CT woman has filed a lawsuit against Harvard University for the "wrongful seizure, possession and monetization" of two photos of slaves who she claims were her ancestors, USA Today reported. And she wants Harvard to hand over the photos.

To help prove his theory, Agassiz commissioned a series of photographs of several enslaved men and women, made using an early photographic technique known as daguerreotype.

"Starting with my mother who, throughout my childhood and not only my childhood but my children's childhood, would often talk about our family history. and she would start with a person who she fondly referred to as Papa Renty, the black African", Lanier said Wednesday.

The lawsuit filed in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Superior Court, against Harvard and the school's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, seeks return of the photos to Lanier and damages.

Lanier claims that Renty is her great-great-great-grandfather and that she grew up hearing the stories of "Papa Renty", who was enslaved in SC.

"The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise created to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered", Lanier's suit says of Agassiz. The importation of slaves had been outlawed more than 40 years prior, making the Harvard-owned images still rarer.

The portrait was commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose ideas were used to support the enslavement of Africans in the United States.

The suit claims that over the years Harvard continued to use the images as a source of income, including use of the iconic images to sell in 2017 the 13th anniversary edition of "From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery".

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One intellectual property lawyer, Rick Kurnit, said he thought Ms. Lanier would have a hard time claiming ownership of the daguerreotypes.

Harvard declined to comment, noting that it has not received a copy of the lawsuit, Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain told BU News Service. She says he is her great-great-great-grandfather.

During a press conference Wednesday, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, co-lead counsel for Lanier, said Lanier's efforts to trace her family history is "nothing short of miraculous", given that many Black Americans can not trace their lineage because of slavery. "But they've either been unresponsive or dismissive of me and questioned my genealogy", she said.

Ben Crump, another of Lanier's attorneys, called on Harvard to denounce slavery and white supremacy "if they have the courage". She alleges that in 2011 she wrote to then-Harvard president Drew Faust, detailing her ties to Renty.

"This will force them to look at my information", Lanier said. Numerous country's most prestigious schools have deep, embarrassing ties to slavery.

Harvard recently joined the Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of more than 50 institutions exploring their past.

In the image, Renty stares hauntingly into the camera, his hair greying and his gaunt frame exposed.

Still, presuming she's indeed Renty's natural heir, I'm at least mildly sypathetic to Lanier's moral claims.

In an article titled "The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races", published one month after the photos were taken, Agassiz described Africans as "submissive, obsequious, (and) imitative" and said they possessed "a peculiar indifference to the advantages afforded by civilized society".

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