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

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

FILE – Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have agreed to sign a memorandum on rights and title with B.C. and Ottawa, but elected chiefs are demanding it be called off over lack of consultation. (Thom Barker photo)
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Lake Babine Nation get provincial funding for land, title rights

Government says it’s a new, flexible model for future agreements between Canada, B.C. and First Nations.

The property on which a residential school (pictured) that was torn down years ago in Lower Post is to be the location of a cultural centre. (Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre photo)
Lower Post residential school building to be demolished, replaced with cultural centre

Project to be funded by federal and provincial governments, Daylu Dena Council

Photo collage of loved ones lost to substance use and overdose. (Photo courtesy Moms Stop The Harm)
B.C. overdose deaths still rising 5 years after public health emergency declared

Moms Stop the Harm calls on B.C. to provide safe supply in response to deadly illicit drug use

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

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

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a CEFA (Core Education and Fine Arts) Early Learning daycare franchise, in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. budget to expand $10-a-day child care, but misses the mark on ‘truly universal’ system

$111 million will be used to fund 3,750 new $10-a-day spaces though 75 additional ChildCareBC universal prototype sites over the next three years.

Mak Parhar speaks at an anti-mask rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Parhar was arrested on Nov. 2 and charged with allegedly violating the Quarantine Act after returning from a Flat Earth conference held in Geenville, South Carolina on Oct. 24. (Flat Earth Focker/YouTube.com screenshot)
Judge tosses lawsuit of B.C. COVID-denier who broke quarantine after Flat Earth conference

Mak Parhar accused gov, police of trespass, malfeasance, extortion, terrorism, kidnapping and fraud

Ambulance paramedic in full protective gear works outside Lion’s Gate Hospital, March 23, 2020. Hospitals are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients more than a year into the pandemic. (The Canadian Press)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate declines, 849 cases Tuesday

Up to 456 people now in hospital, 148 in intensive care

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Christy Clark, who was premier from 2011 to 2017, is the first of several present and past politicians to appear this month before the Cullen Commission, which is investigating the causes and impact of B.C.’s money-laundering problem over the past decade. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Christy Clark says she first learned of money-laundering spike in 2015

The former B.C. premier testified Tuesday she was concerned the problem was ‘apparently at an all-time high’

Most Read