Ownership of historical images of slaves is important. Here’s why.


In March 2019, Tamara Lanier, a retired probation officer, sued Harvard University for possessing daguerreotypes depicting her enslaved ancestors: Papa Renty and his daughter, Delia. The daguerreotypes were taken in 1850 at the request of Louis Agassiz, an incorrigibly racist scientist who has remained a revered, if divisive, figure at the university since his death in 1873.

Even Agassiz’s own descendants agree that the daguerreotypes should be in Lanier’s custody. In 2019, 43 of them signed an open letter calling on Harvard to honor Lanier’s right to the images. But this summer, the Massachusetts Supreme Court rejected Lanier’s bid for their ownership, arguing that Renty never had an ownership interest in the image and, by extension, neither did his descendants.

The power of Lanier’s story lies in its attempt to counteract the actions and inactions of the institutions that supported and endorsed men like Agassiz, men who plundered his ancestors for their own gain and power. Although she no longer possesses the images of her ancestor, she has regained a crucial part of what was stolen from her: the power to tell her own story.

Renty was born in the Congo around 1775. He was probably captured by slave traders in the late 18th century and taken to New Orleans aboard a Spanish ship. In the early 1800s it had been purchased by the Taylor family and taken to their plantation near Columbia, South Carolina, where it worked for half a century before disappearing from historical records three years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The images were captured as part of a movement now called scientific racism, started in the mid-19th century by men like Agassiz and Samuel George Morton, who sought to co-opt the notion of science as objective knowledge to justify the existence of chattel slavery and persistent racial inequalities. Institutions like Harvard, by employing and financially supporting practitioners of scientific racism, were at the forefront of this effort.

In 1846, Agassiz met Morton. In December of that year, on his first visit to the United States from his native Switzerland, Agassiz wrote admiringly of Morton’s collection of more than 600 human skulls. “This collection alone,” he wrote, “was worth the trip to America.”

It was during this same trip to Philadelphia that Agassiz first interacted with a black person. “All the servants in the hotel where I stayed were colored men,” Agassiz wrote. “As much as I try to feel pity,” he continued, “at the sight of this degraded and degenerated race, so their plight fills me with compassion…it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.Less than a year later, while giving a lecture in South Carolina, Agassiz expressed, for the first time publicly, his belief that black people were, anatomically and physiologically a separate species – a theory known as polygenism.It was probably at this conference that Agassiz first met Robert W. Gibbes, a prominent local physician and slaver.

To prove his theory, Agassiz determined that he needed to study slaves in the field, especially people born in Africa – people who Agassiz said did not have a single drop of “white blood”. In 1850 this would not have been an easy task. The transatlantic slave trade had been abolished more than four decades previously. But Gibbes, with his intimate knowledge of the local plantations, managed to locate seven individuals for Agassiz to study, five of whom, including Renty, were born in Africa.

Gibbes’ correspondence confirmed that the two men visited several plantations during Agassiz’s visit to Colombia in early 1850. “Agassiz was overjoyed,” Gibbes wrote to Morton. “He found enough [evidence] to satisfy him. »

Gibbes hired local daguerreotypist Joseph T. Zealy to photograph the slaves Agassiz had examined. They were forced to strip naked, their footage captured to provide pseudo-scientific justification for their own enslavement. Then, with great care, on labels affixed to the cases of the photographs, Gibbes noted their names: Alfred, Renty, Delia, Jack, Jem, Drana and Fassena. “I have just completed the daguerreotypes for Agassiz of native Africans of various tribes,” Gibbes wrote to Morton in June 1850. “I wish you could see them.”

The daguerreotypes were in Agassiz’s possession at the end of that summer. On September 27, 1850, he showed them to members of the Cambridge Scientific Club. To our knowledge, this was the first and last time Agassiz would show these images to the public. The daguerreotypes were then lost for more than 120 years, until they were rediscovered in 1976 in the attic of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, which houses Agassiz’s extensive collection of specimens.

After their rediscovery, Elinor Reichlin, then the museum’s registrar, spent months tracking down the stories of the seven people depicted in the photographs. As the daguerreotypes appeared clinical, as if intended to demonstrate anatomical features, Reichlin deduced that Agassiz—who was interested in biological anthropology—had been involved in their production. She placed Agassiz in South Carolina at the time the daguerreotypes were taken and determined that he had worked with Gibbes.

Renty’s descendants were unaware of the existence of the daguerreotypes until 2011. “History, for me,” said Tamara Lanier, “begins with my love for my mother, our closeness, the time ‘she passed by telling me about our slave ancestors.’ Her voice became tender as she spoke of the memory of her mother telling her bedtime stories. “She always started her stories with Papa Renty. My mother was so proud of him. Renty had got his hands on Noah Webster’s book, the “Blue Back Speller”, designed to teach children to read. He learned to read on his own. Then he taught others.

Lanier’s mother, Mattye Thompson, died in 2010. She entrusted her daughter to become Renty’s memory keeper. “In one of our last moments together,” Lanier recalled, “she said to me, ‘Write this down. Note this.’ ”

Later that same year, a friend told Lanier that he had found a photo of Renty on the Internet. He sent two files to Lanier. The first was a document, written by Reichlin 35 years earlier, on the Peabody Museum daguerreotypes. “I was confused at that point,” Lanier said. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s awful, but what does that have to do with Papa Renty?’ ”

The second attachment was a photograph. “I will never forget that moment,” Lanier said. “It was surreal. As soon as I saw him for the first time, I knew this man was my Papa Renty. And there I was, looking him in the eye.

Lanier’s work as a probation officer gave him a unique insight into the role Renty’s photography could play in American life. “When you get the prosecutor’s brief,” she says, “you have to review it in order to make an appropriate recommendation. You have to watch it without batting an eyelid, no matter how terrible the pictures are. You force yourself to look because there is no justice without looking. I know what is at stake here. All my life I have worked to heal the victims.

Lanier’s words belie a simple but heartbreaking fact: Papa Renty can never be cured. He has been dead for a century and a half. At the same time, this image, one of the earliest known images of slaves, presents a rare opportunity. Caught in the midst of his slavery, Renty’s image is the story in the media. Too often it is impossible to talk about a slave without invoking the name of the slave. Too often, all that’s left of a black man is the name of the white man who claimed to own him. This is not the case for Papa Renty.

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