Harvard University has been sued over its licensing of daguerreotypes believed to be the first images of American slaves. The lawsuit was filed by Tamara Lanier, who says she is the direct descendant of Renty, the man featured alongside his daughter, Delia, in the daguerreotypes. The suit was filed on March 20 in the Middlesex County Superior Court.
The daguerreotypes were commissioned in 1850 by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born Harvard professor who sought the images in support of polygenism, a flawed theory that human races have different origins. The commissioned images were taken by J.T. Zealy in Columbia, South Carolina. A total of 11 slaves were photographed, including Renty and Delia, who were stripped naked and imaged from multiple angles.
The images were apparently lost for years before turning up in the Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology’s attic in 1976. Since their discovery, according to the lawsuit, Harvard has used the images of Renty for profit, including as the cover image for the book From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery, which was published by the Peabody Museum and sold by Harvard.
According to the lawsuit, Lanier had repeatedly reached out to Harvard over the images, but the university failed to address her concerns. Lanier reportedly provided Harvard officials with proof that she is one of Renty’s descendants but was unable to get a response. The lawsuit seeks to have Harvard turn over the images to Lanier’s family and to pay an unspecified amount in damages.