While Tamara Lanier of Norwich, Connecticut, sent a letter to then-Harvard president, Drew Faust, in 2011, explaining how she comes to the claim of lineage, the content of the letter remains unknown. She calls him her great-great-great-grandfather. She calls him “Papa Renty.” She claims to know his story. It’s possible she does, though it’s unlikely.
Renty, along with his daughter Delia, were slaves in South Carolina. They were the subjects of nude photographs by a Harvard biologist, Louis Agassiz, who was engaged in “research” to prove the inferiority of the race.
At the center of the case is a series of 1850 daguerreotypes, an early type of photo, taken of two South Carolina slaves identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia. Both were posed shirtless and photographed from several angles. The images are believed to be the earliest known photos of American slaves.
They were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the U.S. The lawsuit says Agassiz came across Renty and Delia while touring plantations in search of racially “pure” slaves born in Africa.
The images disappeared, until they were rediscovered in 1976 in the attic of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. According to a suit Lanier is bringing against Harvard, the college profits off her ancestor.
The lawsuit argues that Harvard has used the Renty images to “enrich itself.” The image is on the the cover of a 2017 book, “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery,” published by the Peabody Museum and sold online by Harvard for $40.
The photo also was displayed on the program for a 2017 conference that Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advance Study hosted on the school’s relationship with slavery.
According to Lanier’s attorneys, Harvard requires that people sign a contract in order to view the photos and pay a licensing fee to the university to reproduce the images.
The relief sought by Lanier includes damages as well as Harvard’s public condemnation of Agassiz, as well as recognition of its complicity with slavery.
Agassiz’s legacy still lives on at Harvard. He founded the school’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and his wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, also a Harvard researcher of natural history, was founder and the first president of Radcliffe College, now the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women. A street in Cambridge is named after Agassiz, and so is a Harvard theater, the Agassiz House.
The claim is founded on the photographs having been taken without Renty’s consent, which seems likely given that slaves were chattel, not persons. But her attorney, Benjamin Crump, offers a more visceral challenge to Harvard.
Crump, her attorney, added that the case could allow Harvard to “remove the stain from its legacy” and show it has the courage “to finally atone for slavery.”
And even more pointedly:
“When will they not condone slavery and finally free Renty? Because their actions denote something different than what they might say,” Crump said.
“Free Renty” is the sort of slogan that could resonate, particularly given that it’s not too long for Harvard students to remember. But is there a cause of action? Is there a remedy? Is there standing?
Lanier said she began studying her family’s ancestry after her mother died in 2010 to follow up on family stories she heard about Papa Renty. She worked with Boston genealogist Chris Child, who is known for tracing ancestors of Barack Obama, according to a 2018 article in the Norwich Bulletin.
According to the newspaper, Lanier said she can trace her great-grandfather, named Renty Taylor and then Renty Thompson, to a plantation near Columbia, South Carolina, owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor. This is where the photos are believed to have been taken.
This may well be as strong a claim as history permits, even if there might also be others with as much of a claim as Lanier. But it’s still substantially shy of proof, despite the best of efforts. Is the failure of evidence to be forgiven or overlooked, given the circumstances? After all, it certainly isn’t Lanier’s, or Papa Renty’s, fault that he was a slave and lineage is unprovable by the ancient records that might otherwise exist.
Then again, the suit isn’t relying exclusively on evidence and the dearth thereof.
The suit alleges that “by contesting Ms. Lanier’s claim of lineage, Harvard is shamelessly capitalizing on the intentional damage done to black Americans’ genealogy by a century’s worth of policies that forcibly separated families, erased slaves’ family names, withheld birth and death records, and criminalized literacy.”
The thrust of the attack is “evidence plus shaming,” as it appears unlikely that this suit would have any chance of surviving a motion to dismiss, both on standing, [edit*] the statute of limitations as well as the cause of action. But can the “Free Renty” mantra do enough harm to the woke sensibilities of the college to push it over the edge, to get Harvard to acquiesce to the less-than-proven lineage and the less-than-sound claim that a slave, chattel under the law of the day, failed to consent?
“Most importantly, I want the true story of who Renty is to be told. That’s all I’ve ever asked for.”
Of course, nothing prevents Lanier from doing so, now, then or in the future. She can tell the story of the man she believes, with all sincerity, is her great-great-great-grandfather. She doesn’t need Harvard to acquiesce to her demands of recognition to do so. As of now, it appears Harvard isn’t inclined to cave.
The Bulletin quoted Pamela Gerardi, the Peabody Museum’s director of external relations, who described the photos last year as “extremely delicate” and well cared for.
“We anticipate they will remain here in perpetuity,” she said at the time. “That’s what museums do.”
Then again, the same could be said of much of the physical manifestations of history, such as statues of the once-revered which have since been torn down and destroyed. But if shaming Harvard works, and the college ultimately accommodates the demands, even settles for a sum of money, will history be “fixed” and Renty be freed?
There is no doubt that Harvard, like so many institutions and people at the time, engaged in practices that are anathema today. These daguerreotypes show it, whether Renty is Lanier’s ancestor or not. Would conceding to Lanier’s demands suffice for Harvard to atone for its sins or open a wound that will bleed in perpetuity because, for better or worse, history can’t be undone no matter how harsh the rhetoric of shame?
*Within moments of posting this, John Bratt noted yet another hole in the case, the statute of limitations.