Tamara Lanier holds an 1850 photograph of Renty, a South Carolina slave who Lanier said is her family’s patriarch, at her home in Norwich, Connecticut. (John Shishmanian/AP)

Tamara Lanier holds an 1850 photograph of Renty, a South Carolina slave who Lanier said is her family’s patriarch, at her home in Norwich, Connecticut. (John Shishmanian/AP)

Judge dismisses lawsuit over slave portraits at Harvard University

Connecticut woman says Harvard University illegally possessed photos of her enslaved ancestors

A Massachusetts state judge has dismissed a lawsuit from a Connecticut woman who said Harvard University illegally owned photos of her enslaved ancestors and refused to turn them over.

The lawsuit dismissed Tuesday centred on a series of 1850 photos thought to be among the earliest images of enslaved people in the United States. The photos depict a South Carolina man identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia. Both were posed shirtless and photographed from several angles.

The photos were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the U.S.

In her 2019 lawsuit, Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Connecticut, said Renty and Delia are her ancestors and that the photos were taken against their will. She demanded the photos from Harvard, saying the Ivy League school had exploited the portraits for profit, including by using Renty’s image on the cover of a book.

Lanier’s lawsuit alleged that Agassiz saw Renty and Delia as “nothing more than research specimens” and forced them to participate in a “degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status.”

The lawsuit says Lanier verified her genealogical ties to Renty, whom she calls “Papa Renty” and says is her great-great-great-grandfather.

But the judge hearing the case sided with Harvard, which argued that Lanier had no legal claim to the photos. In her decision, Middlesex Superior Court Judge Camille Sarrouf said the photos are the property of the photographer, not the subject.

“Fully acknowledging the continuing impact slavery has had in the United States, the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be,” Sarrouf wrote in the decision.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, one of Lanier’s lawyers, said he planned to appeal the case.

“We remain convinced of the correctness of Ms. Lanier’s claim to these images of her slave ancestors and that she will be on the right side of history when this case is finally settled,” Crump said in a statement. “It is past time for Harvard to atone for its past ties to slavery and white supremacy research and stop profiting from slave images.”

In a statement, Harvard said it’s exploring how to put the photos in “an appropriate home” that “allows them to be more accessible to a broader segment of the public and to tell the stories of the enslaved people that they depict.”

United States

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A black bear tries to get at a bird feeder at a home near Williams Lake. (Laura Ulrich photo)
Managing bear attractants a top priority in B.C. for 2021: Conservation Officer Service

Garbage, fruit trees, bird feeders, compost and livestock are common attractants for bears

B.C. Cattlemen’s Association general manager Kevin Boon. (B.C. Cattlemen’s Association photo)
COVID, BSE, water access and private land rights: B.C. Cattlemen’s general manager weighs in

Kevin Boon said positive aspect of pandemic is more people interested in where their food comes from

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

The board is planning a 2021 festival no matter the conditions, they are going to make it work! (BCMF directors Buddy Thatcher (from left), Kristen Boulier, Rose Clark, Jeff Gray, Corissa McNeilly and Jayme Kennedy (front), and her hair. (photo submitted)
Bella Coola Music Festival planning on 2021 fest

The BCMF is planning for a 2021 festival on July 17 and 18, however it may look.

The Lost Lake trail is a popular hike for locals and visitors for it's accessibility (Khya Saban photo)
LETTER: Lost Lake trailhead trees shouldn’t be cut down

The area is slated to be cut by the Bella Coola Community Forest

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has restricted indoor dining at all restaurants in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 indoor dining, drinking ban extending into May

Restaurant association says patio rules to be clarified

B.C. Premier John Horgan speaks at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
Tougher COVID-19 restrictions in B.C., including travel, still ‘on the table’: Horgan

John Horgan says travel restrictions will be discussed Wednesday by the provincial cabinet

Protesters occupied a road leading to Fairy Creek Watershed near Port Renfrew. (Submitted photo)
B.C. First Nation says logging activist interference not welcome at Fairy Creek

Vancouver Island’s Pacheedaht concerned about increasing polarization over forestry activities

Flow Academy is not accepting membership applications from anybody who has received a dose of the vaccine, according to a password-protected membership application form. (Submitted image)
B.C. martial arts gym refusing patrons who have been vaccinated, wear masks

Interior Health has already issued a ticket to Flow Academy for non-compliance with public health orders

Guinevere, lovingly referred to by Jackee Sullivan and her family as Gwenny, is in need of a gynecological surgery. The family is raising money to help offset the cost of the procedure. (Jackee Sullivan/Special to Langley Advance Times)
Langley lizard’s owners raise funds for gynecological surgery

The young reptile is scheduled for operation on Tuesday

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Facebook screenshot of the sea lion on Holberg Road. (Greg Clarke Facebook video)
VIDEO: Sea lion randomly spotted on remote B.C. logging road

Greg Clarke was driving home on the Holberg Road April 12, when he saw a large sea lion.

Defence counsel for the accused entered two not guilty pleas by phone to Grand Forks Provincial Court Tuesday, Jan. 12. File photo
B.C. seafood company owner fined $25K for eating receipt, obstructing DFO inspection

Richmond company Tenshi Seafood is facing $75,000 in fines as decided March 4 by a provincial court judge

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson speaks in the B.C. legislature, March 2, 2021. (Hansard TV)
B.C. NDP ministers defend ‘air tax,’ latest COVID-19 business aid

Empty home tax doesn’t apply to businesses, but space above them

Most Read