A Connecticut woman has accused Harvard University of exploiting images of 19th-century slaves, who she claims are her ancestors.
According to USA Today, Tamara Lanier is suing the Ivy League after they allegedly ignored her requests to hand over the photographs of South Carolina slaves who've been identified as Renty and his daughter Delia. Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz commissioned the photos, known as daguerreotypes, to promote polygenism—a now-debunked theory that claims whites were the superior human race.
"To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens," the suit reads. "The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered."
Harvard retains ownership of the photos, which show Renty and Delia posing shirtless at different angles. The school has reportedly used the images at a 2017 conference, charges a "hefty" licensing fee to reproduce the photos, and is also selling a book that features Renty's portrait on the cover; the publication is reportedly titled From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery.
Lanier said she has provided Harvard with information that proves she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Renty. She also argues Agassiz did not own the photos because he never received Renty's consent; she is, therefore, the rightful owner of the images, as she is Renty's next of kin.
The woman is suing Harvard for wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of the photos, ignoring her requests to "stop licensing the pictures for the university's profit" and misrepresenting her ancestors. She is also demanding the school to pay unspecified damages and to acknowledge that it "was complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery."
"This will force them to look at my information," Lanier said. "It will also force them to publicly have the discussion about who Renty was and restoring him his dignity," Lanier said about her decision to file the suit. "[...] For years, Papa Renty's slave owners profited from his suffering. It's time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family."