Philip Marcelo, Associated Press, June 23, 2022
A Connecticut woman who says she’s descended from slaves who are portrayed in widely published, historical photos owned by Harvard University can sue the school for emotional distress, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Thursday.
The state’s Supreme Judicial Court partly vacated a lower court ruling that dismissed a complaint from Tamara Lanier over photos she says depict her enslaved ancestors. The images are considered some of the earliest that show enslaved people in the U.S.
The court concluded the Norwich resident and her family can plausibly make a case for suffering “negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress” from Harvard and remanded that part of their claim to the state Superior Court.
The judges said the university failed to contact Lanier when it used one of the images on a book cover and prominently featured it in materials for a campus conference — even after she’d reached out about her ancestral ties.
“In sum, despite its duty of care to her, Harvard cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims and disregarded her requests, despite its own representations that it would keep her informed of further developments,” the ruling states.
But the high court upheld the lower court’s ruling that the photos are the property of the photographer who took them and not the subject themselves.
Lanier’s suit, which was filed in 2019, deals with a series of 1850 daguerreotypes depicting a South Carolina man identified as Renty Taylor and his daughter, Delia Taylor.
In her lawsuit, Lanier argued that the Taylors were her ancestors and that the photos were taken against their will. She demanded the photos from Harvard, saying the school had exploited the portraits for profit.