Descendant of two slaves who were displayed at Harvard will be allowed to sue
Massachusetts’ highest court ruled that the descendant of two enslaved African Americans whose images were used by a Harvard professor to promote racist theories could sue the school for emotional distress.
The state Supreme Court said the Ivy League school engaged in “extreme and outrageous” behavior when it refused to consider Tamar Lanier’s claim that she had suffered emotional harm from the public display of her ancestors, the state’s Supreme Court reported. Boston Globe.
Lanier had sued the university in 2019 over ownership of the daguerreotype portraits of her great-great grandfather, Renty Taylor, and his daughter, Delia.
Although the court ruled that Harvard retains ownership of the images, a unanimous 7-0 vote said Lanier can sue for negligent inflicting emotional distress.
In a joint statement with her attorneys, Ben Crump and Josh Koskoff, Lanier said she would fight for her family’s justice.
“We welcome the landmark Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling in Tamara Lanier’s case against Harvard University for the horrific exploitation of her black ancestors, as this ruling will give Ms. Lanier her day in court to plead for the memory of renty.
“It is with great pride that we continue this legal and moral fight for justice against Harvard as we seek to repair the damage and degradation they have caused to Tamara Lanier, her ancestors and all other people of color exploited by their institution.” .’
The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Connecticut, (pictured) can sue the elite Ivy League school for emotional distress as they criticized Harvard for handling Lanier’s complaint about her ancestors’ daguerreotypes
This July 17, 2018 copy photo shows a daguerreotype of Renty Taylor, commissioned by a Harvard biologist whose ideas were used to support white supremacy and the enslavement of Africans in America
The images are considered to be the earliest known photographs of American slaves. Delia was photographed shirtless
RENTY AND DELIA TAYLOR: PORTRAITS OF AFRICAN SLAVES
Renty Taylor, of Congo, was enslaved in the early 1800s with his daughter, Delia, on a plantation in Columbia, South Carolina.
According to his descendants, Renty taught himself to read and held secret Bible lectures on the plantation, because the enslaved Africans were forbidden to be literate.
In 1850, Harvard biology professor Louis Agassiz arrived at the plantation in search of racially “pure” Africans and ordered daguerreotypes, an early type of photograph.
Renty was one of five men chosen, and Delia one of two women whose images were captured for the purpose of spreading Agassiz’ racist claims that black people were inferior.
Both were posed shirtless and photographed from different angles.
According to the blog site US Slave, which documents the journey of the daguerreotypes, Agassiz never reproduced the images for publication, instead archiving them.
The statues were rediscovered in 1976 in the attic of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The museum has allowed the images to be shared digitally, as the original is fragile and may be used for academic purposes.
Although the state’s Supreme Court said the university owns the rights to the images, the judge denounced Harvard’s handling of Lanier’s complaint.
“Given the university’s horrific, historic role in the forced creation of the degrading daguerreotypes, when Lanier approached Harvard as a descendant of the individuals depicted in these daguerreotypes, provided documentation to that effect and requested further information, it is a duty to respond to her requests with due diligence,” Judge Scott Kafker wrote.
“Harvard should have known that her conduct toward Plaintiff was likely to result in emotional distress and that her conduct was the actual and legal cause of her distress.”
Chief Justice Kimberly Budd also condemned the Ivy League school’s actions amid the school’s own report that it had ties to slavery and items stolen from enslaved African Americans.
“Harvard’s refusal to even respectfully talk to Lanier about her request to possess Renty and Delia’s daguerreotypes runs counter to the ambitious report,” Budd wrote.
“It wiped her off, publicly rejected her ancestral claim and continued to exhibit and profit from the daguerreotypes without Lanier’s input or involvement.”
At the center of the case is a series of 1,850 daguerreotypes, an early type of photograph taken of the two South Carolina slaves.
Both were posed shirtless and photographed from different angles. The images are considered to be the earliest known photographs of American slaves.
They were commissioned by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, whose theories of racial difference were used to support slavery in the US by claiming that Afrian’s was biologically inferior.
According to the lawsuit, Agassiz came across Congolese Renty and his daughter Delia as they toured plantations in search of racially “pure” slaves born in Africa.
“For Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit says. “The violence of forcing them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, much less mattered.”
Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz (right), whose theories about racial differences were used to support slavery in the US, commissioned the photos of Renty and his daughter. The statues were never used and were rediscovered in 1976
The images were allowed to be reproduced digitally for academic use, but Renty’s descendants argued that the rights to the images should be given to them
Lanier (center) plans to continue the lawsuit with her attorneys, famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump (left) and Josh Koskoff (right)
The lawsuit asks, among other things, for Harvard to admit that it is responsible for the humiliation of Renty and Delia, and that Harvard was “complicated in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”
A researcher at a Harvard museum rediscovered the photos in storage in 1976.
But Lanier’s case argues that Agassiz never legally possessed the photos because he didn’t have permission from his subjects, offered them no compensation, and that he had no right to pass them on to Harvard.
Lanier says she grew up hearing stories about Renty that her mother passed down. While enslaved in Columbia, South Carolina, the suit says, Renty taught himself to read and later held secret Bible lectures on the plantation. He is described as ‘small in stature, but towering in the minds of those who knew him’.
According to the indictment, Lanier has verified her genealogical ties to Renty, whom she calls “Papa Renty.” She says he’s her great-great-grandfather.
“My mother made sure that not only her children and grandchildren, but everyone knew the stories,” Lanier told The Associated Press.
When asked what she would do if she got the photos, Lanier said she wanted the chance to “tell the true story of who Renty belonged to.”