Harvard University is being sued by an enslaved man’s descendant who believes the institution is profiting from her ancestor’s likeness.
The images in question are daguerreotypes of a slave named Renty and his daughter, Delia, according to The Boston Globe. The daguerreotypes, taken in 1850, were commissioned by biologist and former Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, who wanted to use them to prove white people were superior to Black people. The pictures were forgotten until 1976 when a Harvard Peabody Museum staffer discovered them stored in a cabinet in the museum's attic.
Since the rediscovery of the images, Harvard has used them both for research and in items for sale. The most recent use of the photo was for the cover of a conference program booklet in 2017.
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Tamara Lanier, who claims genealogical research shows she is the great-great-great granddaughter of Renty, said Harvard's use of the images is a continuation of the exploitation her ancestors experienced.
Lanier is requesting the daguerreotypes be turned over to her family and is seeking unspecified financial damages.
Lanier traced her ancestry back to Renty with the help of genealogist Chris Child, best known for his work exploring the lineage of former President Barack Obama, USA Today reports. According to Politico, Renty was captured in West Africa and bought by a slaver who owned a plantation in South Carolina. He taught himself how to read and held a Bible study with other enslaved people.
“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,” Lanier said. “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.”
A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment but said the university had not been served any papers in the suit. Lanier has tried to gain possession of the images before, and in 2014, a Peabody spokesperson claimed Lanier lacked sufficient evidence of her connection to Renty.
“She’s given us nothing that directly connects her ancestor to the person in our photograph,” the spokesperson told The Norwich Bulletin. “She claims she has more evidence, but we haven’t seen it.”
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