Black Experience

Harvard University is Profiting from Photos of Slaves: Lawsuit

Harvard University has been using and profiting from the photographs of two slaves in South Carolina, known as Renty and Delia, in their attempt to “confront” its ties to slavery.

However, in doing so, Renty and Delia’s descendant, Tamara Lanier, is suing Harvard University for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” and says the Ivy League school is “shamelessly” profiting off of them. Lanier wants Harvard to give her the photos and pay her an unspecified sum in damages.

The two photos were taken in 1850 and depict the two slaves shirtless. The images are thought to be the earliest known photos of American slaves. Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz commissioned the photos after he discovered Renty and Delia on a plantation while looking for racially “pure” slaves born in Africa.

Agassiz’s theories on differences between Blacks and whites were used to support slavery in the U.S.

“To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit says, according to the Associated Press. “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 University has frequently used the photos and profited from them since they were first discovered in a school museum storage in 1976. Harvard asks a “hefty” licensing fee to reproduce the photographs of Renty and Delia and the university also sells a book for $40 that has Renty’s portrait on the cover.

Ironically, the book is called “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery,” is about the use of photography in anthropology, insinuating that the photos taken by a man trying to prove the inferiority of Black people was the science of anthropology.

According to Lanier, she wrote to Harvard in 2011 about being Renty’s descendant and said she wanted to learn more about the images and how they would be used. In 2017, she first demanded that Harvard give her the photos after attending a conference called “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History.” Harvard printed Renty’s portrait on the program cover and projected it on a screen above the stage.

Lanier said she has verified her ties to Renty, who she says is her great-great-great grandfather. Lanier said her mother told her stories about Renty, who taught himself to read and held secret Bible readings on the plantation.

The lawsuit also asks Harvard to take responsibility for humiliating Renty and Delia and being complicit in slavery and that having the images violates the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery.

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

Harvard is among many prestigious colleges in the U.S. that will have to own up to their ties to slavery and atone at some point. These photographs to Lanier could be a start if they can admit to using and profiting from photographs taken without permission of Black slaves originally to support the institution of slavery.

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