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A descendant of the slaves photographed in daguerreotypes commissioned by a Harvard professor in 1850 are the subject of a lawsuit that alleges that Harvard University has wrongly profited off of them since that time.
Photographed by J.T. Zealy in South Carolina under the direction of biologist Louis Agassiz, a slave man and his daughter were stripped of their clothing captured from multiple angles in an effort to support Agassiz’s belief in a theory of human origins called polygenism. Named Renty and Delia, the slave man and woman were used “to argue that African-Americans were inferior to white people” according to PetaPixel.
This is specifically mentioned in the lawsuit, that reads in part that Harvard University “avoided the fact that the daguerreotypes were part of a study, overseen by a Harvard professor, to demonstrate racial inferiority of blacks.”
Tamara Lanier, the person bringing the suit, claims that she is a great-great-great-granddaughter of Renty, the man featured in the photos, and that Harvard University has ignored her requests to stop using and licensing the photo.
Discussing the lawsuit with publication USA Today, Lanier said, “For years, Papa Renty’s slave owners profited from his suffering,” Lanier tells USA TODAY. “It’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family.”
The attorney representing Lanier, Michael Koskoff, said of the court action, “These images were taken under duress, and Harvard has no right to keep them, let alone profit from them…They are the rightful property of the descendants of Papa Renty.”
The photos are part of a collection of pictures found in an attic in 1976. Even though they were missing for so long, the photos have gone on to become famous examples of the horrors of slavery in the United States.