An African-American woman sued Harvard University on Wednesday to gain ownership of photographs of her enslaved family members that the school has financially profited from for years.
See Also: Harvard Acknowledges Its Role In Slavery
Tamara Lanier said she’s the great-great-great granddaughter of a man in several of the photographs named Congo Renty, who has become an iconic image in America’s brutal history with slavery.
Lanier accused Harvard of the wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of the images. She’s seeking the return of the images to her family, as well as damages from Harvard for its repeated use of the images in recent years.
She claimed that the university has been ignoring her requests to “stop licensing the pictures for the university’s profit” and misrepresenting the ancestor she calls “Papa Renty.”
“For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering – it’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family,” Lanier told USA Today.
Here’s what Lanier’s lawyer Ben Crump had to say.
The pictures were commissioned in the 19th century 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, his daughter, while touring plantations in search of racially “pure” slaves born in Africa. The pictures were taken in 1850 and included 15 other slaves.
The suit said Harvard financially exploited images of Renty image at a 2017 conference and in other uses. Renty’s image appeared on the cover of the book, “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery,” published by the Peabody Museum and sold online by Harvard for $40.
In 1976, a researcher rediscovered the photos that were stored in the attic of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
According to the lawsuit, Agassiz never legally owned the photos because he didn’t have consent from his subjects and that he didn’t have the right to give them to Harvard. Lanier claims that she’s the rightful owner as Renty’s next of kin.
The lawsuit also asks Harvard to acknowledge responsibility for the humiliation of Renty and Delia, as well as recognize that it “was complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”