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Connecticut Woman Explains Why She’s Suing Harvard For Family Photos

Renty -- an enslaved man whose photograph was commissioned by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz in 1850.
Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Renty -- an enslaved man whose photograph was commissioned by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz in 1850.

When Tamara Lanier’s mother died in 2010, the Norwich, Connecticut, resident remembered a promise she made to her: to document who her ancestors were.

Lanier says she grew up hearing her mother’s stories about her great-great-great grandfather, Papa Renty, an African-born enslaved man in South Carolina.

In 1850, Harvard professor Louis Agassiz commissioned daguerreotypes of an enslaved man named Renty and his daughter Delia, also enslaved.

Agassiz used these photographs of Renty and Delia, as well as those of other enslaved people, to support his pseudoscientific theory that Africans had different origins from Europeans, an idea -- since scientifically disproven -- that was used at the time to justify slavery.

Lanier says that through oral history and years of research, including consultations with genealogists, she determined she is the descendant of the people in those photographs -- Renty and Delia.

In 2019, Lanier sued Harvard for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of the daguerreotypes. 

Harvard denies profiting from the images, while acknowledging in a statement that “the university has a complicated history with slavery in America and is committed to continuing exploring those past connections.”

The university has filed a motion to dismiss Lanier’s lawsuit. Should the lawsuit move forward, oral arguments could begin later this year. 

Listen to Lanier’s complete conversation with Lucy Nalpathanchil on Where We Live.

Lucy leads Connecticut Public's strategies to deeply connect and build collaborations with community-focused organizations across the state.
Ryan Caron King joined Connecticut Public in 2015 as a reporter and video journalist. He was also one of eight reporters on the New England News Collaborative’s launch team, covering regional issues such as immigration, the environment, transportation, and the opioid epidemic.
Robyn is the host and senior producer of Seasoned.

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