A US woman who says she is descended from slaves who were photographed in 1850 by a racist Harvard University professor on Wednesday sued the university over the “exploitation” of the images of her ancestors.
Tamara Lanier filed suit in the northeastern state of Massachusetts over the photographs taken in South Carolina of a slave and his daughter, known only by their first names: Renty – the patriarch of her family – and Delia.
The images, thought to be the earliest known photographs of American slaves, are currently in a museum at the university near Boston. They were commissioned by Swiss-American Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, a white supremacist theorist who also worked on glaciers.
Renty and Delia were forced to pose naked, “without consent, dignity or compensation” as the professor sought to “‘prove’ black people’s inherent biological inferiority,” Lanier, of Connecticut, said in the suit.
While several US universities have recognized in recent years their ties to slavery, Lanier accuses Harvard of having “never reckoned with that grotesque chapter in its history, let alone atoned for it.”
She also accused the University of working to “sanitize the history of the images and exploit them for prestige and profit,” and denounced the use of Renty’s image on a cover of a $40 anthropology book it published in 2017.
In rejecting Lanier’s claim of lineage and her attempt to recover the photographs, the suit claims Harvard is “perpetuating the systematic subversion of black property rights” and “capitalizing on the intentional damage done to black Americans’ genealogy” through policies such as forced family separation, the erasure of slaves’ family names, withholding records and criminalizing literacy.
Lanier is demanding Harvard – among other things – immediately give up the pictures to her, acknowledge her lineage and that “it was complicit in perpetuating and justifying” slavery, and pay unspecified damages.
Harvard refuse to comment on the suit, except to say that it had not yet been served.