Harvard University profits from early photos of slaves, lawsuit says

Harvard University profits from early photos of slaves, lawsuit says

Harvard University has been is caught up in a lawsuit that alleges it has been “shamelessly” profiting from photos of two 19th-century slaves while purposely ignoring requests to return the photos and their rights to the slaves’ descendants.

The lawsuit, which was filed last week, accuses the Ivy League university for exploiting an enslaved man named Renty as his image is freely used by the institution and was most recently on the cover of a Harvard publication that sells for $40. The book, called “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery,” explores the use of photography in anthropology. The lawsuit further references Harvard’s use of Renty’s image at a 2017 conference and its consistent demands over licensing fees to reproduce the images.

Tamara Lanier, a descendant of “Papa Renty”, says that he was the patriarch of her family and that Harvard is using his photo without her family’s permission, and in doing so, profiting from photos taken by a “racist professor determined to prove the inferiority of black people”.

“By contesting Ms. Lanier’s claim of lineage, Harvard is shamelessly capitalising on the intentional damage done to black Americans’ genealogy by a century’s worth of policies that forcibly separated families, erased slave’s family names, withheld birth and death records, and criminalised literacy.”

Lanier also shines a light on the production of those images as they were of Renty and his daughter Delia, who were forced to strip naked and pose for a humiliating “pseudoscientific study”. By refusing to acknowledge her claims to the photos, Lanier says that Harvard is “perpetuating the systematic subversion of black property rights that began during slavery and continued for a century thereafter.”  

“Slavery was abolished 156 years ago, but Renty and Delia remain enslaved in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” the complaint states. “Their images, like their bodies before, remain subject to control and appropriation by the powerful, and their familial identities are denied to them.”

Harvard University has not released a comment and a university spokesperson said that it had not yet received the complaint.

The complaint tells the story of Lanier’s family, their heritage and how it started with Renty, a slave in South Carolina who taught himself how to read in defiance of state law. Lanier then juxtaposes her lineage story with that of Harvard and its relationship with professor Louis Agassiz.

The way she tells it, Agassiz was obsessed with proving a theory of white supremacy. After he was appointed at Harvard, he began to promote the theory of polygenism, the racist and now-debunked idea that racial groups share different origins. In support of his theory, Agassiz commissioned a series of photographs of several enslaved men and women and had them strip naked and photographed from all angles.

Speaking to the New York Times, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates put it simply: “That photograph is like a hostage photograph. This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda – that’s what the photograph was taken for.”

Lanier is asking for a jury trial in order to make her case and is demanding compensation for pain and suffering including punitive damages and full rights over the photos. The only problem that may arise is the difficulty in proving that she is a descendant of Renty, Furman University Gregg Hecimovich told The Times.