BREAKING: Harvard University accused of profiting from slaves’ photos

The Widener Library at Harvard University in full dress for the inauguration of the new university president Drew Gilpin Faust in 2007. Photo licensed under Creative Commons, Flickr.

By Dave Sebastian
BU News Service

BOSTON — Harvard University has profited from two photos of 19th-century African-American slaves while refusing to return the photos to the slaves’ descendants, according to a lawsuit filed to the Middlesex County Superior Court on Wednesday.

The photos feature Congo Renty, an enslaved African man, and his daughter Delia. They were commissioned in 1850 by Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor who supported a theory that places blacks as inferior to whites, the release said.

The photographed slaves’ descendant, Tamara Lanier of Norwich, Conn., is seeking payment in damages for “wrongful seizure, possession and monetization” of the photos and requested the university to return them, according to a press release. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Lanier, will hold a press conference at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday across from the Harvard Club of New York City.

Harvard declined to comment, noting that it has not received a copy of the lawsuit, Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain told BU News Service.

An employee of Harvard’s Peabody Museum discovered the photos in the museum’s attic in 1976. The Ivy League university then displayed the images in the museum and levied fees on the images’ use, despite the employee’s concerns for the depicted slaves’ families, the release noted.  

The daguerreotypes, or images taken through an early photographic process, were taken in winter 1850 in a “plush photograph studio” in Columbia, South Carolina. The image subjects were stripped — Renty naked and Delia to the waist — and “forced to pose,” the release said.

After the photo shoot, Agassiz received “enthusiastic reception” and published a research paper titled “The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races,” in which he described Africans as “submissive, obsequious [and] imitative,” the release noted.

The commissioning of Renty and Delia’s photos came after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens to help capture runaway slaves.

“Harvard stood by its professor and, to this day, has never sufficiently repudiated Agassiz and his work,” the release said. “In displaying and licensing the images, Harvard has avoided the fact that the daguerreotypes were part of a study, overseen by a Harvard professor, to demonstrate racial inferiority of blacks.”

Instances of Harvard’s profiting from the images include the use of Renty’s image on the cover of the Harvard University Press book “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery,” which retails for $40, the release noted.

Lanier, according to the release, wrote in 2011 to Drew Faust, then Harvard’s president, to discuss the pictures, detailing her ancestry. Faust gave Lanier an “evasive response” that “made no mention of Lanier’s heritage and offered no opportunity to discuss returning the pictures to the Lanier family,” the release stated.

“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, a chief probation officer, said in the release. “Harvard’s refusal to honor our family’s history by acknowledging our lineage and its own shameful past is an insult to Papa Renty’s life and memory.”

Renty, according to Lanier’s recounting of oral history, was kidnapped in Africa by slave merchants and enslaved on the B.F. Taylor plantation in South Carolina.

This story has been updated to add Harvard University’s comments.

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