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Agassiz descendants put pressure on Harvard to give up slave photos

Tamara Lanier, who is suing Harvard University over slave images that she says belong to her family, has gained support from an unlikely corner: the descendants of the professor and controversial scientist who commissioned the pre-Civil War daguerreotypes.
Tamara Lanier, who is suing Harvard University over slave images that she says belong to her family, has gained support from an unlikely corner: the descendants of the professor and controversial scientist who commissioned the pre-Civil War daguerreotypes.(Karsten Moran/New York Times)

A Connecticut woman suing Harvard University over slave images that she says belong to her family has gained support from an unlikely corner: the descendants of the professor and controversial scientist who commissioned the pre-Civil War daguerreotypes.

More than 40 descendants of Louis Agassiz have signed an open letter to Harvard’s president and trustees urging them to relinquish the images to Tamara Lanier, who traces her lineage to the slaves.

Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard in March, alleging that the university has capitalized on what are believed to be the oldest images of American slaves. The daguerreotypes of a South Carolina slave named Renty and his daughter Delia were taken for Agassiz to bolster his theory of white biological superiority.

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A 1850 Daguerreotype of Renty, a South Carolina slave who Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Conn., said is her family's patriarch.
A 1850 Daguerreotype of Renty, a South Carolina slave who Tamara Lanier, of Norwich, Conn., said is her family's patriarch.(Courtesy of Harvard University/The Norwich Bulletin via Associated Press)

Lanier has said that the images are of her family members who as slaves were forced to sit for the photographs and that those images now belong to her family.

Agassiz’s descendants back her claim, which probably puts additional public pressure on Harvard to surrender the images.

“Does the university want to continue to gain from an image stolen from enslaved people?” the family letter asks. “It is our hope that releasing the daguerreotypes will be a first step in a long overdue movement of reckoning and repair.”

Agassiz’s descendants said they have struggled to come to terms with their ancestor’s legacy of white supremacy. They encouraged Harvard to acknowledge its part in providing “intellectual legitimacy” to the once-renowned professor of geology.

Agassiz’s descendants shared the letter but declined to comment further. Family representatives plan to hold a press conference Thursday and deliver the letter to Harvard officials afterward.

Harvard declined to comment specifically about the litigation Wednesday. But college officials said the daguerreotypes, which are fragile, are treated carefully to ensure their preservation. They are viewed twice a year and kept in a temperature-controlled room.

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Harvard’s Peabody Museum holds the images and has gone to great lengths to develop practices that engage descendant communities and others who may have an interest in its some of its sensitive collections.

“Harvard has and will continue to come to terms with and address its historic connection to slavery,” said Rachael Dane, a spokeswoman for the Peabody Museum. “Harvard also strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects from around the globe within its museum and library collections.”

Harvard has yet to respond in court to the lawsuit, but president Lawrence Bacow has said there is nothing unlawful about the university’s possession of the portraits. The university does not profit from the images and charges only a small fee for reproductions, Harvard officials have said.

“I think we have the law on our side. Again, I would hope, though, that we could resolve this not purely by resort to legal process,” Bacow said in April in an interview with the student newspaper The Crimson.

But legal experts have said that the case is not only about the lawful ownership of the images, but what is ethical, considering that the subjects of the photos were slaves and had no ability to consent.

Lanier’s attorneys said they hope that the letter from Agassiz’s descendants will bolster their case against Harvard.

“They can speak to Harvard in a way that others can’t, white or black,” said Josh Koskoff, a Connecticut attorney representing Lanier. “The letter is an exceptional show of support and goodwill from this family.”

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Louis Agassiz.
Louis Agassiz.(Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The Agassiz descendants who have signed on include artists, psychologists, a published poet, a college administrator, a Harvard reference librarian, and a former top official in the US Treasury Department under the Obama administration. They live in Minnesota, California, Mexico, and New England. Several are graduates of Harvard.

Agassiz, a Swiss-born naturalist, was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, although he disagreed with the theory of evolution. He was among the early scientists to theorize that the Earth had gone through a great ice age, and he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He was so popular at Harvard during his time that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote him a birthday poem and when he died in 1873, the Boston newspapers published special editions trimmed in black, according to a Harvard publication.

But Agassiz also advocated polygenesis, the belief that humans weren’t all the same species and that white people were superior. His work was used to bolster slavery.

The images of Renty and his daughter are part of Agassiz’s polygenesis work. Renty, a white-haired black man, is photographed emaciated and stripped of his clothing. His daughter, Delia, is photographed in profile, too, as if she were a scientific specimen.

In their letter, several of his family members said they have celebrated Agassiz’s scientific contributions.

But they added, “For too many years we have ignored his role in promoting a pseudoscientific justification for white supremacy,” the letter said. “We see this as a collective failure to live up to our values of anti-racism and compassion.”

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An Agassiz descendant from Minnesota read the news reports about the lawsuit in the spring and contacted Lanier about the images, said Ben Crump, one of Lanier’s attorneys. Crump is a civil rights attorney who represented Trayvon Martin’s family after the black teen was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator.

Tamara Lanier at a news conference near the Harvard Club on March 20 in New York.
Tamara Lanier at a news conference near the Harvard Club on March 20 in New York. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

While only a few of the descendants continue to carry the Agassiz name, Crump credits them for willingly stepping forward to acknowledge their family’s part in slavery and its effect across generations of black Americans.

Americans remain reluctant to talk about slavery and reparations, Crump said.

The more common reaction would be to simply portray Agassiz to a man of his time, without confronting his influence in present day America, Crump said.

“I think most people in America don’t get involved in the debate,” he said. “They could have been neutral and silent.”

The images of Renty and his daughter were long forgotten until 1976, when they were discovered in a corner cabinet in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Since then, they have been widely available online.

Harvard used Renty’s image on the cover of a 2017 book on anthropology and during a conference it hosted that same year about universities and slavery. The image was also used in a recent art exhibit on Harvard’s campus about slavery and the university.

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For a while, Harvard kept tight control over which outside groups could use the image.

Lanier wrote to former Harvard president Drew Faust in 2011 detailing her ancestry and ties to Renty and Delia. The paucity of records about slaves and their families has made ancestry research difficult for many black Americans, and some Harvard officials have in the past raised questions about the documentation that Lanier provided to prove her lineage to Renty.

The lawsuit is now in federal District Court in Boston.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.