August 12, 2022

Tamara Lanier, the Connecticut Woman Leading (and Winning) the Legal Fight for Redress for Her Enslaved Ancestors, to Deliver the 2022 Stone Memorial Lecture

Tamara Lanier takes questions during a press conference announcing a lawsuit against Harvard University on March 20, 2019 in New York City.

2022 Dr. Sonja Haynes Stone Memorial Lecture | Thursday, October 27th | 7:00p.m

The 2022 Sonja Haynes Stone Memorial Lecture will feature a presentation by Tamara Lanier, the great-great-great granddaughter of ‘Papa Renty’, whose image, as well as being an important record of the life of an enslaved individual, is also the subject of one of the most important legal contests over the rights of the descendants of the enslaved in the United States. Ms. Lanier, after confirming missing elements of her family’s history, was able to establish her kinship to her ancestors, and begin the difficult struggle to reclaim their identities and dignity.

The Stone Lecture will take place on Thursday October 27th, at 7:00p.m. at the Stone Center.

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In 2019, Tamara Lanier filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts for the right to seek redress from Harvard University for emotional distress over a series of photos depicting her enslaved ancestors, Renty Taylor and his daughter, Delia Taylor of South Carolina.

After legal setbacks in the lower courts, the case received a favorable hearing in the higher courts culminating in the landmark decision by the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court in June 2022 which held that legal claims by descendants can proceed against Harvard for the historical photos which the university still owns.

Lanier’s two enslaved ancestors were photographed shirtless from several angles in pictures commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, who espoused theories on racial difference and Black inferiority, that were used to justify racial discrimination against Blacks in the US.

Lanier, who lives in in Norwich, Connecticut, argued through her attorneys that in 1850, Harvard University forced her two ancestors “without consent, dignity and compensation” to pose for the photos, which were subsequently displayed publicly and used to promote slavery, Lanier’s attorneys argued.

According to news reports, “The court concluded that Lanier and her family could plausibly make a case for suffering “negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress” from Harvard University and remanded that part of their claim to the state Superior Court. Harvard did not contact Lanier when they used one of the images on a book cover and prominently featured in materials for a conference on campus.”

One of Lanier’s attorneys, Josh Koskoff called the decision a “historic win” because it marked the first time that a court affirmed the rights of descendants of enslaved people to seek accountability for the mistreatment of their ancestors.

“Harvard is not the rightful owner of these photos and should not profit from them,” Koskoff said in a written statement. “As Tamara Lanier and her family have said for years, it is time for Harvard to let Renty and Delia come home.”

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 20: Tamara Lanier takes questions during a press conference announcing a lawsuit against Harvard University on March 20, 2019 in New York City. Lanier has accused Harvard University of the wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of photographic images of her great-great-great grandfather, an enslaved African man named Renty, and his daughter, Delia. (Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts stated in its ruling:

“We have no doubt that Agassiz’s actions in 1850 – having Renty and Delia taken, stripped, and forced to pose for the dags – would meet these requirements. What is directly at issue herein, however, the separate question whether Harvard’s conduct toward a descendant of Renty and Delia nearly 170 years later satisfied these stringent requirements. Nevertheless, as emphasized in connection with Lanier’s negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, Harvard’s present actions cannot be divorced from its past misconduct.”

In light of Harvard’s complicity in the horrific actions surrounding the creation of the daguerreotypes, the Justices concluded that, once Lanier communicated her understanding that the daguerreotypes depicted her ancestors and provided supporting documentation, we discern in both existing social values and customs and appropriate social policy a duty on Harvard’s part to take reasonable care in responding to her…”

The court goes on to state: “ As we have already observed, Harvard’s past complicity in

the repugnant actions by which the daguerreotypes were produced informs its present responsibilities to the descendants of the individuals coerced into having their half-naked images captured in the daguerreotypes.  Whether Harvard’s response to Lanier’s

inquiries about the daguerreotypes resulted in a breach of basic community standards of decency cannot be evaluated without taking into account its historic responsibility for Agassiz’s role in the horrific circumstances by which those very daguerreotypes were created.”

The Sonja Haynes Stone Memorial Lecture is an annual program hosted each fall. Twenty-eight previous Stone lectures have featured noted social activist/scholars and artists including Angela Davis, Edwidge Danticat, and Nnenna Freelon, among others.

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