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Harvard Sued for Profiting From Images of Enslaved Ancestors

Tamara Lanier attends a news conference near the Harvard Club, March 20, 2019, in New York. Lanier is suing the Harvard University for "wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation" of images she says depict two of her ancestors.

An American woman has filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, accusing the prestigious institution of "shamelessly" profiting from photos of her ancestors who were slaves in the 19th century.

Tamara Lanier of Norwich, Connecticut, is suing the Ivy League school for "wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation'' of images of her great-great-great grandfather, Renty, and his daughter, Delia.

She wants Harvard to hand the images over to her family and pay an unspecified amount in damages.

Early type of photography used

The lawsuit says the 1850 daguerreotypes, an early type of photograph, were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz who was seeking racially "pure'' slaves born in Africa.

The father and daughter were stripped and photographed from various angles in an effort to "prove" Agassiz's theory that black people are inferior and to "justify their subjugation, exploitation and segregation."

"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 says Harvard has over the years exploited the images, including using an image of Renty to promote a 2017 conference called "Universities and Slavery: Bound by History," which explored the relationships between universities and slavery, and as a cover of a book that explores the use of photography in anthropology.

History shared by mother

Lanier said as a child she heard stories about Renty from her mother who made sure to pass down family history. She alleges that in 2011 she wrote to then-Harvard president Drew Faust, detailing her ties to Renty.

At the time, she wanted to learn more about the images and how they would be used. In another letter sent in 2017, she demanded that Harvard relinquish the photos. In both cases, she said, Harvard did not address her requests.

The suit charges that "by contesting 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.''