Deirdre Fernandes, MSN, March 20, 2019
A Connecticut woman is suing Harvard University for allegedly profiting from a photo of her family’s patriarch, an African slave who was forced to pose naked in what historians believe is one of the oldest images of enslaved people in the United States.
Tamara Lanier, a former chief probation officer in Norwich, said she has repeatedly asked Harvard since 2011 to stop using the daguerreotypes of a slave named Renty and his daughter, Delia. The photos were commissioned by a Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz, a biologist who used the images to bolster his argument of white superiority.
“For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering,” Lanier said in a statement. “It’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family,”
The photo, used most recently on the cover of a 2017 book on anthropology, depicts an older black man with white hair. His bones are visible, and he looks directly at the camera. He appears naked from the waist up.
The photo was taken in 1850 in South Carolina, where Renty was enslaved on the B.F. Taylor plantation, according to Lanier.
The lawsuit raises new questions about how American universities should address their ties to slavery and come to terms with the racist views espoused by former presidents, benefactors and prominent professors.
In 1838, Jesuit priests sold nearly 300 slaves to save Georgetown University from financial disaster and to pay off its debt. The descendants of the slaves have demanded restitution. In 2017, Colby College announced that it would name a building for a former slave who for 37 years, beginning right after the Civil War, worked as the school’s janitor.
After student protests, Harvard in 2016 agreed to remove a shield used by its law school that included sheaves of golden wheat, a reference to a slaveholding donor’s coat of arms.
Agassiz was a Swiss-born scientist who came to Harvard in 1847 to teach zoology. He is considered one of the founders of modern American scientific tradition and referenced in Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”
But he did not believe that humans all belong to the same species. He commissioned 15 images of male and female slaves in the South shown from multiple angles to categorize and analyze racial differences. His theory and science was used to justify slavery and later segregation, and Harvard has yet to sufficiently refute his work, according to the lawsuit.