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Descendants From 2 Sides Of Slave Photos Join Forces In Harvard Case02:16
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Tamara Lanier, 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. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
Tamara Lanier, 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. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

The descendants of slaves and the descendants of a man who tried to academically justify slavery are joining forces.

In the 19th century, Harvard University professor Louis Agassiz commissioned photos of a slave named Renty and his daughter in an effort to illustrate the inferiority of blacks. Harvard still has those images.

The descendants of Renty want them back. That's why Tamara Lanier is suing Harvard. The Connecticut woman says the school profits from the pictures of her great-great-great-grandfather, Papa Renty, and his daughter, Delia.

"And I don't think that Harvard has a right to have absolute control and authority over the images, given the circumstances of their origin," she said.

An 1850 daguerreotype of a slave named Renty, among the first photos taken by naturalist Louis Agassiz, is displayed in 1997 at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. (Andy Kuno/AP)
An 1850 daguerreotype of a slave named Renty, among the first photos taken by naturalist Louis Agassiz, is displayed in 1997 at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. (Andy Kuno/AP)

The images show an unclothed Renty and Delia.

Susanna Moore is a great-great-great-granddaughter of Agassiz.

"Do we think Renty and Delia consented to be part of a project to justify their own enslavement? Of course not," Moore said Thursday. "Their images were stolen from them."

Moore and her family drafted a letter asking Harvard's president to hand over the images and the rights of those images to Renty's living family.

So together, the descendants of Renty and the descendants of the man who exploited him walked together in the rain Thursday to deliver the letter to Harvard's president. They were stopped by police, before being allowed in.

After a few moments, they emerged again. The president wasn't there. But they left the letter for him anyway.

Harvard says it can't comment on Lanier's suit. But in an email, a Harvard spokeswoman wrote that the school "will continue to come to terms with and address its historic connection to slavery." And that Harvard "strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects" in its collection.

Lanier says as long as Harvard owns the image of Renty, his legacy remains enslaved.

This segment aired on June 20, 2019.

Earlier Coverage:

Quincy Walters Twitter Reporter
Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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