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

Matthew Balogh was last seen in Abbotsford on Sunday, April 18 at 10 a.m.
Police seek help in locating missing 17-year-old in Abbotsford

Matthew Balogh was last seen at 10 a.m. on Sunday, April 18

Michael Colmant, a former manager of Abbotsford International Airport, was killed in a hit-and-run in Washington state while he was riding his bicycle.
Abbotsford man dies in hit-and-run while cycling in Washington

Seattle police still searching for driver of vehicle that killed Michael Colmant

..
Abbotsford nurse at ‘breaking point’ pleads with public to take COVID-19 seriously

Instagram post urges general population to stay home, wear a mask and get vaccinated

The Independent Investigations Office of BC (IIO) (File Photo)
IIO investigating after man seriously injured by police dog during Abbotsford arrest

Independent Investigations Office looking into incident from March 6 in 3700 block of Davie Street

A pack of three T-Rexes were reportedly seen shopping near Winners at the Junction Shopping Centre in Mission. Facebook photo / Carla Jayne.
Pack of T-Rexes spotted prowling, shopping in Mission

Sightings may confirm recent fossil evidence suggesting that tyrannosaurs lived in packs

FILE – NDP Leader John Horgan, right, and local candidate Mike Farnworth greet one another with an elbow bump during a campaign stop in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday, September 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. won’t be using random individual road stops to enforce travel rules: Safety Minister

Minister Mike Farnworth says travel checks only being considered at major highway junctions, ferry ports

Cash seized in a 2018 RCMP drug bust in the Lower Mainland. (Contributed)
Kelowna RCMP-led drug investigation nets charges for 4 in Lower Mainland

Cops seized 12 kilograms of MDMA and $380K executing several search warrants in the Lower Mainland in 2018

Welcome to your park sign marks the spot where 84th Avenue will continue east from King George Boulevard to 140th Street as part of a $13 million road project. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Road Rage: Opposition mounts anew to Surrey’s Bear Creek traffic plan

Same place, same project, same fight as Surrey prepares once again to connect 84th Avenue between King George and 140th Street in Newton

A native-to-B.C. wild queen bee (bombus melanopygus for those in the know) feeds on a periwinkle flower. (Submitted/Sarah Johnson, Native Bee Society of BC)
B.C.’s wild bees need messy gardens to survive

The year-long nesting period makes habitat a primary concern for wild bees

FILE – Health-care workers wave to people clapping and yelling thank you to the frontline workers during the 7 p.m.-tribute outside the Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, April 8, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. nurses issue plea for all to follow health orders as hospitalizations spike

Nurses worried about strain COVID-19 is having on hospital capacity, care

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. The University of Victoria says Williams has resigned effective immediately. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

Lawsuit filed last summer accused Barney Williams of verbal abuse

Former B.C. premier Christy Clark. (Black Press Media files)
Former B.C. premier to testify at money laundering hearing today

Attorney General David Eby has been added to the witness list as well

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to table budget that’s expected to deal with COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

Robinson released a fiscal update last December that said the impact of the pandemic on B.C.’s economy was uncertain

Most Read