Harvard Accused of 'Shamelessly' Profiting From Slavery Photos

Illustration for article titled Harvard Accused of Shamelessly Profiting From Slavery Photos
Photo: John Shishmanian (Associated Press)

Harvard University has been accused of “shamelessly” profiting from photos featuring 19th-century slaves, all while ignoring repeated requests to turn over the photos to the descendants of those pictured. As a result, a lawsuit was filed on Wednesday.


According to USA Today, the school is being sued by Norwich, CT., resident Tamara Lanier for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of images she claims depict two of her ancestors. In her suit, which lays out eight different legal claims, she is demanding that Harvard not only turn over the photos immediately, but acknowledge her ancestry and compensate her an unspecified sum for damages.

The pictures, which were purposely malicious, were intended to promote the bogus theory of polygenism—in which white folks are somehow superior to the rest of us, despite their propensity to age at an accelerated rate due to their uncanny aversion to properly seasoned food.


WBUR describes the pictures as such:

At the center of the case is a series of 1850 daguerreotypes, an early type of photo, taken of two South Carolina slaves identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia. Both were posed shirtless and photographed from several angles. The images are believed to be the earliest known photos of American slaves.

They were commissioned 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 while touring plantations in search of racially “pure” slaves born in Africa.

“To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit says. “The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered.”

The suit accuses Harvard of “exploiting” Renty’s image—in which he stares hauntingly into the camera with his his gaunt frame exposed—at a 2017 conference entitled “Universities and Slavery: Bound by History” and demanding exorbitant licensing fees to reproduce the photos. As an example, it cites a book Harvard sells for $40, “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery,” which features a portrait of Renty on the cover. As such, Lanier believes Harvard is “complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”


“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, Renty’s great-great-great granddaughter, said in a statement to The Root. “Papa Renty was a proud and kind man who, like so many enslaved men, women and children, endured years of unimaginable horrors. 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.”

“These images were taken under duress, ordered by a Harvard professor bent on proving the inferiority of African-Americans,” said Michael Koskoff of Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder and co-lead counsel for Ms. Lanier. “Harvard has no right to keep them, let alone profit from them. It’s about time University accepted responsibility for its shameful history and for the way it has treated Papa Renty and his family.”


“These photographs make it clear that Harvard benefited from slavery then and continues to benefit now. By my calculation, Renty is 169 years a slave. When will Harvard finally set him free?” added national civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, co-lead counsel for Ms. Lanier. “Without slavery, this photo would not exist, nor would the racist theories that led to its creation. We cannot erase the wrongs of the past or the legacies of slavery within higher education, but we can forge a new path of respect, dignity and equality moving forward. Returning the images would be a first step in the right direction.”

Their statement concludes with the following:

Even though Agassiz helped lay the groundwork for over 100 years of state-sanctioned segregation, discrimination and violence against African-Americans, Harvard continues to defend him as a great scientist of his time and continues to profit from the images while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Ms. Lanier’s familial relationship.

Menace to supremacy. Founder of Extraordinary Ideas and co-host and producer of The Extraordinary Negroes podcast. Impatiently waiting for ya'll to stop putting sugar in grits.

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This surprises me. Harvard has been pretty generous about their image licensing fees (which, in my own experience, have been $0). Universities also don’t really make money off of conferences—if there’s a fee, it’s usually just to break even. They also don’t make much money from those kinds of books (not exactly NYT bestsellers). But it all goes toward bolstering their academic reputation and their intellectual legacy, which is what their reputation and enormous endowment is predicated on. And you can see that Renty’s picture is being used on the flyer here. I’m curious to know how much this kind of exploitation is worth.