America’s oldest college or university, Harvard University, recently acknowledged its involvement in the practice of slavery, including the establishment of initiatives to involve former slaves’ descendants on campus and collaborate with other African-Americans and academic institutions. The institution can now be pressured to do more to atone for its role in the country’s greatest sin, the highest court in Massachusetts has ruled, siding with the descendant of two enslaved people coerced into posing for images that have since been extensively circulated.
On June 23, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court overturned portions of a judgment from a lower court from 2021 that had prevented Tamara Lanier from suing Harvard University in 2019 over the usage of images she said included her enslaved ancestors. According to the report, Lanier and her family have a solid case that Harvard has caused them “negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress.” According to the Associated Press, this portion of the claim has been sent back to the supreme court.
The justices also pointed out that despite being aware of Lanier’s connection to the people in the images, the Ivy League university did not notify Lanier or the estate when it used one of the photos of her family on materials for a campus conference in 2014 and a book cover in 2017.
The ruling read in part, “In sum, despite its duty of care to her, Harvard cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims and disregarded her requests, despite its own representations that it would keep her informed of further developments.”
“We are pleased by the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Tamara Lanier’s case against Harvard University for the horrendous exploitation of her Black ancestors,” said Lanier’s attorneys, Ben Crump and Josh Koskoff, “as this ruling will give Ms. Lanier her day in court to advocate for the memory of Renty.”
Renty Taylor and his daughter, Lanier’s ancestors, were allegedly coerced by Harvard into posing for photos “without consent, dignity, and pay” according to civil rights attorney Crump.
Taylor was described as “an outstanding man who educated himself and other slaves to read and led covert Bible study meetings on the plantation where he was enslaved” in a petition started by Lanier.
The petition claims that Louis Agassiz, a renowned Harvard professor, took the image of Renty in 1850 while attempting to “prove” that Black people were fundamentally inferior in order to justify their enslavement, subjection, and exploitation. Renty and his daughter Delia were coerced into stripping off for these inhumane photos.
While denying its involvement in Agassiz’s horrible crimes, Harvard continues to utilize these photos, benefitting from their legality and historical significance.
The Washington Post states that Harvard “lost” the pictures but later found them in its Peabody Museum collections in 1976, where they are currently saved and kept.
“Harvard’s past complicity in the repugnant actions by which the daguerreotypes were produced informs its present responsibilities to the descendants of the individuals coerced into having their half-naked images captured in the daguerreotypes,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote in his opinion on the decision.
Josh Koskoff, one of the attorneys representing Lanier and her family, referred to this as a “historic win” for the US. It is one of the earliest judicial decisions in favor of those whose ancestors were slaves.
He supported a portion of the court’s decision but disagreed with the other, likening it to “revenge porn” or photographs of sex trafficking.
Despite Taylor and his daughter being in the photographs, the court upheld the Agassiz’s ownership of them, saying that “a descendant of someone whose likeness is replicated in a daguerreotype would not, therefore, inherit any property title to that daguerreotype.”
Koskoff said in a statement that “Harvard is not the lawful owner of these images and should not profit from them.” It is time for Harvard to permit Renty and Delia to return home, as Tamara Lanier and her family have argued for many years.
The original daguerreotypes remain in archival storage and are not on display for the general public, according to Rachael Dane, a spokesman for Harvard University, who also highlighted that the institution will evaluate the decision. She said that the photographs have not been licensed or leased to other institutions in 20 years due to their fragility, not because the museum was sympathetic to the family’s complaints.
She stated, “Harvard has grappled with its historic link to slavery and will continue to do so. Harvard regards this investigation as part of its basic academic purpose. In its museum and library collections, Harvard aspires to be a moral steward of the millions of historical items from all over the world.
The April 19 draft report produced by the university’s Steering Committee on Human Remains was leaked earlier this month by the Harvard student newspaper, The Crimson, which asserted that the Peabody collection at Harvard, where the Taylor images are kept, contains over 7,000 more images of enslaved people (both African and First Nation). It also shows that the institution disregarded a federal statute from 1990 that demanded the return of numerous people’s remains by keeping these artifacts.
The draft report’s introduction argues that “our collection of these particular human remains is a stunning example of structural and institutional racism and its long half-life.”
The school was “extremely frustrated” when the news was reported by the Crimson because they felt it threatened their efforts to mend the rifts between the community, the school, and the descendants of slaves.
“It is profoundly disappointing that the Harvard Crimson opted to disclose an initial and incomplete draft report of the Committee on Human Remains,” said Professor Evelynn M. Hammonds, chair of the steering committee.
In her letter, she stated that publishing this draft would be “irresponsible reporting,” deprive the Committee of the opportunity to complete its report and any accompanying actions, and jeopardize the Harvard community’s deliberate participation in its publication. Additionally, it distributes an out-of-date version to the Harvard community that does not take into account months’ worth of additional data and Committee work.
Harvard declared in the spring of 2022 that it will spend $100 million in an effort to atone for both its active and passive support of the system of slavery.
Researching and locating the descendants of slaves who performed work on campus is a part of those efforts. It also made public a thorough report detailing numerous presidents, senior officials, and graduates who benefited from the use of unpaid labor from people of color, including those who had structures named in their honor.