Descendant of Slaves Loses Photo Fight With Harvard

Mass. judge rules university is rightful owner of photos of slaves taken for racist project
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 5, 2021 8:12 AM CST
Photo Ruling a Win for Harvard or a 'Grave Injustice'?
In this July 17, 2018, photo, Tamara Lanier holds an 1850 photograph at her home in Norwich, Conn., of a South Carolina slave named Renty, who Lanier said is her family's patriarch.   (John Shishmanian/The Norwich Bulletin via AP, File)

Photos of an enslaved father and daughter taken for a racist project at Harvard belong to the school, not the slaves' direct descendant, a Massachusetts judge has ruled. Tamara Lanier, who grew up hearing about great-great-great grandfather Renty, only learned about the 1850 daguerreotypes of himself and daughter Delia in 2010. The photos, showing the subjects naked from the waist up, were taken by Joseph T. Zealy as part of a project commissioned by Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, who posited that Black people were inferior, reports the New York Times. The project, rediscovered in 1976, included photos of seven subjects and represent "the earliest known photographs of enslaved people," per Harvard Magazine. Lanier, who filed suit in 2019, argued Harvard had no right to hold them or use them for financial gain.

Judge Camille Sarrouf of Middlesex County Superior Court disagreed Tuesday. "Fully acknowledging the continuing impact slavery has had in the United States, the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be," she wrote in dismissing the suit. She also noted the issue of commercial use was moot following the deaths of the subjects. Lanier—who recently testified before a House committee looking into slavery reparations, per WTNH—plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court. "I will never let this rest as it is because it is a grave injustice," she tells Harvard Crimson. She has the support of dozens of Agassiz's descendants, USA Today reported in 2019. Harvard now says it plans to increase access to the "powerful visual indictments of ... slavery" and tell the stories of those depicted. (More Harvard stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.