The New York Times reports that Harvard University is being sued by Tamara Lanier, 54, who claims that the school is "shamelessly" profiting off of pictures of her descendants. The photos were taken 169 years ago and portrayed a father and daughter, identified as simply Renty and Delia, who were slaves exploited for a racist study.
The photos were commissioned by a Harvard professor and are currently stored at a campus museum. But Lanier claims that the images are records of her family history and are rightfully hers, not cultural artifacts that should be preserved by an institution. Her lawsuit accuses Harvard of wrongful seizure, possession, and monetization of the photos; misrepresenting one of her ancestors; ignoring her requests to "stop licensing the pictures for the university's profit"; and misrepresenting the ancestor she calls "Papa Renty," as per USA Today.
The case is unique because it shines a light on the roles of some of the country's oldest and most prestigious universities played in slavery. In addition, it continues to drive the debate over whether descendants of the enslaved should receive reparations and, if so, what form they should take.
Benjamin Crump, one of Ms. Lanier's lawyers, believes that the case is the first of its kind.
"It is unprecedented in terms of legal theory and reclaiming property that was wrongfully taken. Renty's descendants may be the first descendants of slave ancestors to be able to get their property rights."The photos were taken by former professor Louis Agassiz, a biologist, who captured Renty and Delia naked from multiple angles. They were used for a study in support of a false theory called polygenism, which Agassiz and other scientists used to argue that African-Americans were inferior to whites.
"These images were taken under duress and Harvard has no right to keep them, let alone profit from them," said Michael Koskoff, the other lawyer representing Lanier. "They are the rightful property of the descendants of Papa Renty."
Harvard leaders have recently begun to acknowledge the school's past role in slavery. Back in 2016, the university's former president, Drew Faust, said that the school was "directly complicit" in America's slavery system up until it ended in Massachusetts in 1783. However, she added that the school remained "indirectly involved" in the system through other ties to the South.
"This is our history and our legacy, one we must fully acknowledge and understand in order to truly move beyond the painful injustices at its core."