Harvard University was sued Wednesday for allegedly profiting on the earliest known photographs of African-American slaves.
In the complaint, plaintiff Tamara Lanier alleges that the slaves depicted in the daguerreotypes (early photographs) known only as “Renty” and “Delia” are her ancestors. Lanier outlines a rich oral history preserved in her family leading back to “Renty.” Lanier describes the conduct and content of the photographs taken in 1850 wherein “Renty” and “Delia” were made to pose naked against their will at the request Louis Agassiz, a renowned Harvard professor. Lanier alleges that Agassiz took these photographs and used them to lecture and promote the inferiority of African-Americans.
Lanier also describes Harvard’s rediscovery of the photographs in 1976. The photographs were rediscovered by chance by a researcher and made national news as the “earliest known photographs of American slaves.” Harvard quickly moved to assert ownership of them and require any would-be viewers to sign a contract agreeing not to use the photographs without express permission. Harvard then charged anyone seeking to use the photographs a licensing fee for usage. Harvard later profited on the inclusion of the photos in books on anthropology and other projects while refusing any information or contact to Lanier.
Lanier is requesting several forms of relief including the restitution of the photographs to her, an acknowledgement of Harvard’s role in the photographs production and publication, damages for emotional distress and punitive damages. Harvard has so far declined to comment on the lawsuit claiming not to have been served yet.