A Connecticut woman is suing Harvard University for allegedly “shamelessly” turning a profit from photos of slaves, ignoring requests to turn the photos over to the slaves’ descendants. In her lawsuit, Tamara Lanier accuses the school of “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of images she says depict two of her ancestors. Lanier demands that Harvard immediately turn over the photos, acknowledge her ancestry, and pay an unspecified sum in damages. The photos in question were taken in 1850 of two slaves identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia. Both were posed shirtless and photographed from several angles. The photos 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. “To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the suit says. “The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered.”
The suit alleges that Harvard has exploited the images by using them at conferences, and capitalized on the photos by demanding a “hefty” licensing fee to reproduce them. The suit also draws attention to a book Harvard sells for $40 with Renty’s portrait on the cover.