Daguerrotype of Renty, 1850.
If you are on the Left, no story, however implausible, can be subject to skepticism if it serves the interests of the right people.
Harvard University has “shamelessly” turned a profit from photos of two 19th-century slaves while ignoring requests to turn the photos over to the slaves’ descendants, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Connecticut, is suing the Ivy League school for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of images she says depict two of her ancestors. Her suit, filed in Massachusetts state court, demands that Harvard immediately turn over the photos, acknowledge her ancestry and pay an unspecified sum in damages.
Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain said the university “has not yet been served, and with that is in no position to comment on this complaint.”
At the center of the case is a series of 1850 daguerreotypes, an early type of photo, taken of two South Carolina slaves identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia. Both were posed shirtless and photographed from several angles. The images are believed to be the earliest known photos of American slaves.
They were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the U.S. The lawsuit says Agassiz came across Renty and Delia while touring plantations in search of racially “pure” slaves born in Africa.
“To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit says. “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.”
The suit attacks Harvard for its “exploitation” of Renty’s image at a 2017 conference and in other uses. It says Harvard has capitalized on the photos by demanding a “hefty” licensing fee to reproduce the images. It also draws attention to a book Harvard sells for $40 with Renty’s portrait on the cover. The book, called “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery,” explores the use of photography in anthropology.
Among other demands, the suit asks Harvard to acknowledge that it bears responsibility for the humiliation of Renty and Delia and that Harvard “was complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”
A researcher at a Harvard museum rediscovered the photos in storage in 1976. But Lanier’s case argues Agassiz never legally owned the photos because he didn’t have his subjects’ consent and that he didn’t have the right to pass them to Harvard. Instead, the suit says, Lanier is the rightful owner as Renty’s next of kin.
The suit also argues that Harvard’s continued possession of the images violates the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.
“Renty is 169 years a slave by our calculation,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, one of Lanier’s lawyers, said in an interview. “How long will it be before Harvard finally frees Renty?”
Lanier says she grew up hearing stories about Renty passed down from her mother. While enslaved in Columbia, South Carolina, Renty taught himself to read and later held secret Bible readings on the plantation, the suit says. He is described as “small in stature but towering in the minds of those who knew him.”
The suit says Lanier has verified her genealogical ties to Renty, whom she calls “Papa Renty.” She says he is her great-great-great-grandfather.
If given the photos, Lanier said she would tell “the true story of who Renty was.” But she also hopes her case will spark a national discussion over race and history.
“This case is important because it will test the moral climate of this country, and force this country to reckon with its long history of racism,” Lanier said at a news conference outside the Harvard Club of New York City.
Crump, her attorney, added that the case could allow Harvard to “remove the stain from its legacy” and show it has the courage “to finally atone for slavery.”
The genealogy of African Americans is notoriously difficult to document, since Antebellum census records failed to record the names of slaves at all. But Tamara Lanier, we are to believe, has successfully documented her connection with a 1850 photographic subject, known only as “Renty.”
Not only that, she knows all sorts of interesting things about her alleged ancestor. (Hyperallergic)
How ironic it is to know that the black African chosen by a scientist to be the symbol of ignorance and racial inferiority was truly an educated and self-taught man,â€ Lanier told The Day. According to her familyâ€™s verbal history, Renty taught himself to read, and taught other slaves using a book called the Blue Back Webster. â€œMy goal is to correct history and to share with all that â€¦ Renty was an educated and exceptional person.â€
â€œPapa Renty was a proud and kind man who, like so many enslaved men, women, and children endured years of unimaginable horrors,â€ Lanier told the Boston Globe. â€œHarvardâ€™s refusal to honor our familyâ€™s history by acknowledging our lineage and its own shameful past is an insult to Papa Rentyâ€™s life and memory.â€
But, her actual familial connection to Renty, we are then told, is, after all, not that important.
A number of experts expressed to the NYT that they believe Lanierâ€™s case may not hold up in court. Intellectual property lawyer Rick Kurnit says he believes she will have a difficult time proving ownership over the images, referencing the infamous â€œV-J Day in Times Square,â€ which belonged to the photographer rather than the sailor or the nurse who are kissing in the image. However, the NYT notes, the â€œV-Jâ€ image was taken in a public space.
Gregg Hecimovich, chairman of the English department at Furman University, believes Lanierâ€™s claim to ancestral history is shaky, but Molly Rogers, the author of a book called Deliaâ€™s Tears, posits, â€œItâ€™s not necessarily by blood. It could be people who take responsibility for each other. Terms, names, family relationships are very much complicated by the fact of slavery.â€
Appropriately enough, she is being represented by Benjamin Crump, an African-American attorney specializing in representing racially-based claims.
Algonquin J. Calhoun was clearly unavailable.
Benjamin Crump, one of Lanierâ€™s lawyers, calls the case â€œunprecedented in terms of legal theory and reclaiming property that was wrongfully taken. Rentyâ€™s descendants may be the first descendants of slave ancestors to be able to get their property rights.â€ In 2012, Crump represented the family of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager murdered by George Zimmerman while walking home.