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Harvard University - Campus - Cambridge MA

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A Connecticut woman has accused the nation’s most prestigious university of capitalizing on photos of her enslaved ancestors.

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Tamara Lanier has sued Harvard University for constitutional rights violations, negligent infliction of emotional distress and unauthorized use of a name, picture and/or portrait, according to the lawsuit, which was filed March 20 in Massachusetts’ Middlesex County Superior Court.

The suit says in 1850, Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz traveled to a South Carolina plantation and forced Renty and his daughter, Delia, to strip and be photographed. The professor wanted to use the pictures as evidence to prove his theory that Black people were inferior – and to justify their terrible treatment in the country’s racially-based caste system. Renty and Delia were never compensated for the images, and Harvard has continued to use them in books and at conferences, according to the lawsuit, which was obtained by BOSSIP.

Lanier, who recently retired as the chief probation officer in Norwich, said she is a direct descendant of Delia and Renty and she wants the daguerreotypes as well as Harvard to acknowledge its alleged exploitation of Renty and Delia. Lanier also wants money damages and lawyer’s fees.

“Slavery was abolished 156 years ago, but Renty and Delia remain enslaved in Cambridge, Mass.,” the lawsuit says. “Their images, like their bodies before, remain subject to control and appropriation by the powerful, and their familial identities are denied to them.”

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The lawsuit, brought by Travon Martin’s family attorney Benjamin Crump, alleged that when Harvard discovered the daguerreotypes in storage in 1976, school officials allegedly saw dollar signs and began exploiting the images – the earliest known photographs of enslaved African-Americans – and sanitizing the story of how the school came to possess them.

Lanier said in court papers that she’s tried several times to engage the school and past President Drew Faust, but her response was “evasive and vague.” She said she also tried to reach out to the school’s newspaper in 2016, but she said an editor killed the story following pushback from the Peabody Museum.

Harvard has yet to respond to the suit.



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