The descendant of an American slave on Wednesday sued Harvard University over photographs of her great-great-great grandfather that the institute had commissioned in 1850 for a professor who was trying to prove that black people were inferior, Reuters reported. The photographs, which show a man named Renty and his daughter Delia, are among the earliest known photos of American slaves.
The photos were part of a study conducted by Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz and are currently stored at Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnography at Harvard’s Cambridge, Massachusetts campus. The university declined to comment on the matter but a representative said that it had not yet been served with the complaint.
The petitioner, Tamara Lanier, claims to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Renty. The Connecticut resident has accused Harvand of celebrating Agassiz, who had taken the photos without Renty and Delia’s consent.
Lanier said her petition will force the United States to reckon with its history of racism. “What I hope we’re able to accomplish is to show the world who Renty is,” she said. “I think this case is important because it will test the moral climate of this country.”
Her lawyers told the Middlesex County Superior Court in Massachusetts that the university had refused to give her the photos. “By denying Ms. Lanier’s superior claim to the daguerreotypes, Harvard is perpetuating the systematic subversion of black property rights that began during slavery and continued for a century thereafter,” the complaint said. Daguerreotypes are an earlier form of photography.
Lanier also asked the university to compensate for her “emotional distress” and demanded its acknowledgement that it was “complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”