UPDATED 8:06 AM PT — Thursday, March 21, 2019
Ivy league school Harvard University is being accused of “shamelessly” profiting off images of two 19th century slaves.
Connecticut resident Tamara Lanier is suing the elite school for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of images she says depict two of her ancestors. Her suit demands Harvard immediately turn over the photos, acknowledge her ancestry, and pay an unspecified sum in damages.
At the center of the case are a series of photos from 1850, which were taken of two South Carolina slaves identified as Renty and his daughter Delia.
“Renty was dragged into the studio and they took the only thing that hadn’t been taken yet from Renty, and that was his image because he could not own property,” stated Josh Koskoff, attorney for the slaves’ descendant. “And since 1850, Harvard has had some role in that, and they continue to keep the image and use it to for profit and prestige.”
The images are believed to be the earliest known photos of American slaves.
The suit attacks Harvard for its “exploitation” of Renty’s image, and is asking the school to acknowledge it was “complicit in perpetuating and justifying the institution of slavery.”
If given the photos, Lanier said she would tell the “true story” of who Renty was.’
“This case is important because it will test the moral climate of this country, and force this country to reckon with its long history of racism,” she stated. “Specifically, this case will force Harvard to look at their complicity as it relates to slavery, and finally answer the questions about their role.”
A Harvard University spokesperson said the university has not been served, and it is in no position to comment on the complaint.