The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who should own historical images of enslaved people?

The universities that used them to advance scientific racism and the descendants of enslaved people fighting to tell their own stories both want them

The Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., in 2018. A retired probation officer sued the university in March 2019 for possession of daguerreotypes depicting her enslaved ancestors. (Charles Krupa/AP)
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In March 2019, Tamara Lanier, a retired probation officer, sued Harvard University for possession of daguerreotypes depicting her enslaved ancestors: Papa Renty and his daughter, Delia. The daguerreotypes were taken in 1850 at the behest of Louis Agassiz, an incorrigibly racist scientist who has remained a venerated, albeit divisive, figure at the university since his death in 1873.

Even Agassiz’s own descendants agree the daguerreotypes ought to be in Lanier’s care. In 2019, 43 of them signed an open letter calling for Harvard to honor Lanier’s right to the images. But this summer, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected Lanier’s bid for their ownership, arguing that Renty never had a property interest in the image and, by extension, neither do his descendants.

The power of Lanier’s story resides in her bid to counteract the actions and inactions of the institutions that supported and endorsed men like Agassiz, men who plundered her ancestors for their own gain and their own power. Though she will not now own the images of her ancestor, she has taken back a crucial part of what was stolen: the power to tell her own story.

Renty was born in the Congo sometime around 1775. He was probably captured by slave traders at the end of the 18th century and taken to New Orleans aboard a Spanish ship. By the early 1800s, he had been purchased by the Taylor family and taken to their plantation near Columbia, S.C., where he labored for half a century before disappearing from the historical record three years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The images were captured as part of a movement now referred to as scientific racism, which was pioneered in the middle of the 19th century by men like Agassiz and Samuel George Morton, who sought to co-opt the notion of science as objective knowledge to justify the existence of chattel slavery and continued racial inequalities. Institutions like Harvard, in employing and financially backing the practitioners of scientific racism, were at the forefront of this effort.

In 1846, Agassiz met Morton. In December of that year, when he first visited the United States from his native Switzerland, Agassiz wrote admiringly of Morton’s collection of more than 600 human skulls. “That collection alone,” he wrote, “was worth the trip to America.”

It was during that same trip to Philadelphia that Agassiz first interacted with a Black person. “All the servants at the hotel I stayed in were men of color,” Agassiz wrote. “As much as I try to feel pity,” he continued, “at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, as much as their fate fills me with compassion … it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.” Less than a year later, while giving a lecture in South Carolina, Agassiz expressed, for the first time publicly, his belief that Black people were, anatomically and physiologically, a separate species — a theory known as polygenism. It was at this lecture, probably, that Agassiz first met Robert W. Gibbes, a prominent local physician and enslaver.

To prove his theory, Agassiz determined that he needed to study enslaved people in the field, particularly individuals who had been born in Africa — individuals who, Agassiz surmised, had not a single drop of “White blood.” In 1850, this would have been no easy task. The transatlantic slave trade had been abolished more than four decades earlier. But Gibbes, with his intimate knowledge of the local plantations, managed to locate seven individuals for Agassiz to study, five of whom, including Renty, had been born in Africa.

Gibbes’s correspondence confirmed that the two men traveled to several plantations during Agassiz’s visit to Columbia in early 1850. “Agassiz was delighted,” Gibbes wrote to Morton. “He found enough [evidence] to satisfy him.”

Gibbes hired local daguerreotypist Joseph T. Zealy to photograph the enslaved people Agassiz had examined. They were forced to strip naked, their images captured to provide a pseudoscientific justification for their own enslavement. Then, with great care, on labels affixed to the photographs’ cases, Gibbes recorded their names: Alfred, Renty, Delia, Jack, Jem, Drana and Fassena. “I have just finished the daguerreotypes for Agassiz of native Africans of various tribes,” Gibbes wrote to Morton in June 1850. “I wish you could see them.”

The daguerreotypes were in Agassiz’s possession by the end of that summer. On Sept. 27, 1850, he showed them to the members of the Cambridge Scientific Club. As far as we know, this was the first and last time that Agassiz showed these images to the public. The daguerreotypes were then lost for over 120 years, until they were rediscovered in 1976 in the attic of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, which houses Agassiz’s vast collection of specimens.

After their rediscovery, Elinor Reichlin, then the museum’s registrar, spent months tracking down the stories of the seven people depicted in the photographs. Since the daguerreotypes seemed clinical, as if intended to demonstrate anatomical features, Reichlin deduced that Agassiz — who was interested in biological anthropology — had been involved in their production. She placed Agassiz in South Carolina at the time the daguerreotypes were taken, and determined that he had worked with Gibbes.

Renty’s descendants were unaware of the daguerreotypes’ existence until 2011. “The story, for me,” Tamara Lanier said, “begins with my love for my mother, our closeness, the time she spent telling me about our enslaved ancestors.” Her voice grew tender as she spoke about the memory of her mother telling her bedtime stories. “She would always start her stories with Papa Renty. My mother was so proud of him. Renty had gotten his hands on Noah Webster’s book, the ‘Blue Back Speller,’ which was designed to teach children to read. He taught himself to read. Then he taught others.”

Lanier’s mother, Mattye Thompson, died in 2010. She entrusted her daughter with becoming the custodian of Renty’s memory. “In one of our last moments together,” Lanier remembered, “she said to me, ‘Write this down. Write this down.’ ”

Later that same year, a friend told Lanier that he had found a picture of Renty on the internet. He emailed Lanier two files. The first was a document, written by Reichlin 35 years earlier, about the daguerreotypes at the Peabody Museum. “I was confused at that point,” Lanier said. “I thought, ‘Well, this is awful, but what does it have to do with Papa Renty?’ ”

The second attachment was a photograph. “I will never forget that moment,” Lanier said. “It was surreal. As soon as I laid eyes on him that first time, I knew that man was my Papa Renty. And here I was, looking into his eyes.”

Lanier’s work as a probation officer has given her a unique way of understanding the role that Renty’s photograph could play in American life. “When you get the prosecutor’s file,” she says, “you need to look at it in order to make a proper recommendation. You need to look at it unblinkingly, no matter how terrible the images are. You force yourself to look because there can be no justice without looking. I know what’s at stake here. My whole life I’ve worked to make victims whole.”

Lanier’s words belie one simple yet harrowing fact: Papa Renty can never be made whole. He has been dead for a century and a half. At the same time, this image, one of the earliest known images of enslaved people, presents a rare opportunity. Taken amid his enslavement, Renty’s image is history in medias res. All too often, it is impossible to speak of an enslaved person without invoking the enslaver’s name. All too often, all that remains of a Black man is the name of the White man who professed to own him. Not so for Papa Renty.