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Norwich Woman Will Appeal After Judge Dismisses Suit Over Pictures Of Her Enslaved Ancestors

Frank Franklin II
Associated Press
Tamara Lanier of Norwich, Conn., who is suing Harvard University for "wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation" of images she says depict two of her ancestors, is seen in an earlier photo.

A lawsuit filed by a Connecticut woman over images of enslaved people has been dismissed by a Massachusetts judge. Tamara Lanier sued Harvard University two years ago to force the release of the rights to pictures of two people she says are her enslaved ancestors. The daguerreotypes were commissioned in 1850 by a Harvard biologist, and Lanier says the subjects didn’t want to be in them.

While Harvard acknowledged that the Black man and woman were photographed against their will, the university also called the images “powerful visual indictments of the horrific institution of slavery.”

Lanier says the photos promote scientific racism.

“If they were to object and say, ‘I’m not going in there, I’m not consenting to this,’ they would do that at their own peril,” she said. “The violence of slavery and all that’s associated with it is what I say to you when I say that these images are the outgrowth of violence.”

She says that makes her great-great-great grandfather Renty and her great-great aunt Delia victims of a crime.

She and attorney Josh Koskoff want Harvard to acknowledge its relationship with “disgraced scientist” Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the U.S. They want the university to relinquish the photos, and they’re seeking financial compensation.

So they’re appealing.

“The court essentially, in my view, is punting if you will, but not in an unreasonable way up to the higher court,” said Koskoff. “We always felt that this was a case demanded the attention of the highest court in Massachusetts and we hope that this provides us with that opportunity.”

This all started for Lanier years ago as she was making good on a promise to put together a genealogical record of her family for her late mother. An acquaintance from Norwich showed her the images. She was excited at first as she felt she found Renty and Delia.

But then she heard about how they were commissioned. And then she sued.

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