Harvard Sued Over Early Images of Enslaved Africans

In 1850, Harvard professor Louis Agassiz commissioned a series of daguerreotypes, an early method of photography, of slaves. His mission was to prove that Black Africans and Whites of European origin did not share common human ancestors.

Included in these photographs were images of an enslaved man called Renty from South Carolina and his daughter Delia. Renty and his daughter were photographed naked and without their consent. The daguerreotypes were found in 1976 in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

Now Tamara Lanier of Connecticut has filed a lawsuit against Harvard in Massachusetts Superior Court. Lanier claims that she is the great-great-great grandfather of the man she calls “Papa Renty.” As a child she has heard stories of Papa Renty and later conducted research into her heritage. The lawsuit seeks ownership of the photos, punitive damages, and compensation for pain and suffering.

The suit notes that the photograph of Renty appears on the cover of From Site to Sight Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (Harvard University Press, 2017). The book sells for $40.

The lawsuit states that “slavery was abolished 156 years ago, but Renty and Delia remain enslaved in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their images, like their bodies before, remain subject to control and appropriation by the powerful.”


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