Judge Rules Harvard University Owns Portraits of Tamara Lanier’s Enslaved Ancestors

by Yah Yah
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A Massachusetts state judge has dismissed a lawsuit from Connecticut woman Tamara Lanier, who accused Harvard University of illegally owning and profiting from photographs of her enslaved ancestors.

The images, taken in 1850, featured two slaves, a father and daughter, Renty and Delia. Both were stripped to the waist and positioned for frontal and side views — as part of a racist study to argue that Black people were an inferior race. The study was commissioned by Harvard professor and zoologist Louis Agassiz.

In the lawsuit filed in 2019, Lanier stated that Renty and Delia are her ancestors and that the photos were taken against their will. She (rightfully) accused the university of exploiting the portraits for profit. Renty’s image was even used as the cover of a book.

While the judge acknowledged that images had been taken under “horrific circumstances,” he said that as enslaved subjects, Renty and Delia did not own the photos.

“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,” Justice Camille F. Sarrouf of Middlesex County Superior Court wrote in a judgment per The New York Times.

Harvard released a paltry statement claiming that it is considering “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.”

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump plans to appeal the case on Lanier’s behalf.

“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.”

Crump has previously suggested that the daguerreotypes be taken on a tour of America so that everyone can see them.

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