When Tamara Lanier was a little girl, she said, her mother would often tell her stories about her great-great-great-grandfather, whom she called Papa Renty. He was from Congo, enslaved on a plantation in South Carolina, Lanier said, and her mother was especially proud he taught other enslaved people to read with a blue-backed spelling book. He would also read aloud from the Bible.
When her mother was dying in 2011, Lanier said, she made her daughter promise she would write those stories down. A friend who worked at a restaurant offered to help research her family history online, she said, and he stopped her one day and said he had found her ancestors on the Internet — she could even see their images.
On Wednesday, Lanier sued Harvard University, which has 19th-century daguerreotypes — believed to be the earliest-known images of enslaved people in the United States — of a man and his daughter who she says are her ancestors.
Harvard is profiting from those images, the lawsuit contends, and refuses to return them to the descendants. The daguerreotypes were commissioned in 1850 by a university professor who used them in asserting black people were biologically inferior to other races, according to the complaint.
“The claim is simple,” said Josh Koskoff, one of Lanier’s attorneys. “You took something. It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to me. And I want it back.”
The case comes at a time when many universities — including Harvard — are delving into their pasts and providing a more complete reckoning of the role enslaved people, and money from the slave trade, played in their early years. Some schools are also investigating and acknowledging work done by faculty members to promote white supremacy.
The case reflects the difficulty African Americans confront in seeking information about their ancestors, and the painful discoveries they sometimes make.
“You can typically track ancestry back to the 1870 Census, when the vast majority of African Americans in the United States are listed as individuals in the U.S. census,” said Kirt von Daacke, a history professor at the University of Virginia and assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Before then, he said, “enslaved people show up as statistical references.”
Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain responded Wednesday, “The university has not yet been served, and with that is in no position to comment on this lawsuit filing.”
Harvard officials did not immediately respond to questions about Louis Agassiz, the professor who commissioned the photos, or about whether anything is known about the identities, or descendants, of the people in the images.
Lanier said Wednesday at a news conference in New York that she had contacted Harvard numerous times. "But they’ve either been unresponsive or dismissive of me and questioned my genealogy,” she said.
The lawsuit filed in Middlesex County Superior Court in Massachusetts, against Harvard and the school’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, seeks return of the photos to Lanier and damages.
Ben Crump, another of Lanier’s attorneys, called on Harvard to denounce slavery and white supremacy “if they have the courage.”
In 2016, Drew Faust, Harvard’s president at the time, dedicated a plaque honoring four enslaved people, saying it was only the beginning of efforts to remember their shared history. "Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783,” Faust said in 2016, “and Harvard continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation. This is our history and our legacy.”
Harvard recently joined the Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium of more than 50 institutions exploring their past.
Von Daacke, who was at a 2017 conference at Harvard, remembers the images being used there to talk about the horrors of slavery — not used in the way Agassiz intended them to be used. He said that he couldn’t speak to the legal issues but could understand a woman’s shock and dismay at seeing images she believes to be her ancestors being used in that way at a conference.
Lanier, 54, a retired probation officer from Norwich, Conn., said she didn’t know how to honor her mother’s request and document her family history, until a man working in a restaurant with an interest in genealogy told her he could help. He was excited, she said, to tell her he had found Papa Renty. But when she learned more about the images and how they were used, she was disappointed. They show Papa Renty naked and his daughter Delia stripped to the waist.
The lawsuit claims that a Peabody Museum researcher found the daguerreotypes in a wooden cabinet in the attic, a discovery that made headlines. The complaint alleges the university made no effort to locate relatives, and continues to use the images for advertising and commercial purposes.
A spokeswoman for Harvard, Rachael Dane, wrote in an email that, “Because of their importance, condition, age, and rarity, the Weissman Preservation Center has recommended that viewing of all daguerreotypes in the Peabody Museum’s collections be limited to twice per year.”
The lawsuit lists names of descendants but does not document the source of that information.
When enslaved people were first freed, they didn’t own any property, Crump said, “and 169 years later, Harvard is telling Renty’s descendant he still does not own his image — he still is a slave.”
It has been painful, Lanier said, but she derived solace knowing her mother died before she found the images.
“I’m grateful for that because I know, based on the stories she shared with us, the fondness she had for Papa Renty,” Lanier said. "It would have hurt her to know the reason for the images — to prove inferiority.”