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Harvard Faces Lawsuit Over First Photos of Slaves

In 1850, professor wanted images to show whites were superior
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 20, 2019 1:08 PM CDT
Tamara Lanier holds an 1850 photograph of Renty, a South Carolina slave.   (John Shishmanian/The Norwich Bulletin via AP)

(Newser) – Harvard is being sued over its handling of 1850 photographs of slaves that were intended to demonstrate their inferiority to white people—by the great-great-great granddaughter of one of the slaves. Tamara Lanier's lawsuit says Harvard wrongfully seized and profited from the photos and has misrepresented an African man in the photos named Renty. She said she's descended from Renty and his daughter, Delia, who's also in the photographs. Lanier wants the photos to be given to her family. "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," she says in a statement to USA Today. Harvard has used a photo of Renty on the cover of a book it sells and as well as on a program for a conference.

The photos were commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a Harvard biologist whose theories were used to defend slavery, per WDIV. The photos are thought to be the first of American slaves and show Renty and Delia posed shirtless from different angles. Lanier's suit asks Harvard to admit that it bears responsibility for the humiliation of Renty and Delia, and that Harvard "was complicit in perpetuating and justifying" slavery in this country. The photos were found by a university researcher in 1976, the AP reports. The lawsuit contends that Agassiz had no right to give the photos to Harvard because, lacking his subjects' consent, he never legally owned them. "These photographs make it clear that Harvard benefited from slavery then and continues to benefit now," one of Lanier's lawyers says in a statement, per WDIV. "By my calculation, Renty is 169 years a slave. When will Harvard finally set him free?" (An elementary teacher thought a mock slave auction would be educational.)

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