CAMBRIDGE — Under cover from a torrential downpour, two families came together on Harvard University’s campus Thursday to demand that the institution turn over historical photographs of two slaves and reckon with its history of white supremacy.
Tamara Lanier, a Connecticut woman who sued Harvard in March, has said she’s a descendant of Renty and his daughter Delia, two slaves who were forced in 1850 to pose naked for daguerreotypes, or early photographs. She said the images, discovered in 1976 and stored in Harvard’s Peabody Museum, rightfully belong to her, and her lawsuit alleges that Harvard is “shamelessly capitalizing” on them.
She was joined at a press conference Thursday by descendants of controversial Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz, who commissioned the daguerreotypes in an attempt to support his theory of white biological superiority.
“I feel like I’ve been lifted into this extraordinary story that this woman is leading,” Marian Moore, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Agassiz, said while standing with Lanier out of the rain under a concrete overhang. They were just hundreds of feet from where campus buildings bearing the Agassiz name stood. “It’s like the chance of a lifetime, really.”
Moore said she learned about Lanier’s quest to obtain the daguerreotypes through a New York Times story, and reached out to Lanier via social media.
“I immediately contacted [Moore], and we have bonded,” said Lanier, who is Renty’s great-great-great-granddaughter. “When you think about . . . the fact that you have the linear descendants of Renty and the linear descendants of Louis Agassiz standing in solidarity, it’s just amazing.”
Harvard has used Renty’s image several times, including on the cover of a 2017 anthropology book.
“Harvard has and will continue to come to terms with and address its historic connection to slavery,” Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said, stressing that the museum’s high standards for preservation help maintain the fragile photos. “Harvard also strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects from around the globe within its museum and library collections.”
In April, Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, told the student newspaper The Crimson that he thinks Harvard has “the law on our side” when it comes to possession of the daguerreotypes. The school charges a small fee for reproductions, but doesn’t profit from the photos, officials have said.
“Again, I would hope, though, that we could resolve this not purely by resort to legal process,” Bacow told The Crimson.
But Moore said she thinks turning over the images could help Harvard begin “crucial work of deep reckoning and repair.” Her sister Susanna said she thinks the “family photos” belong to Lanier.
“Louis Agassiz, backed by Harvard University, offered a biological basis to white supremacy,” Susanna Moore said. “The myth is maintained to this day by . . . institutions like Harvard, who are still saying, ‘No.’ It’s time for reparations.”
The reparations Lanier is seeking “will be significant, because the harm is significant and the benefit [Harvard] received was significant” according to Josh Koskoff, one of Lanier’s attorneys. Her legal team also includes civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager who in 2012 was shot and killed by a community watch member in Florida.
After Thursday’s clandestine press conference, announced at the last minute to avoid the possibility of Harvard officials kicking the families off campus, the group unfurled umbrellas and embarked on a soggy slog through campus to Bacow’s office in Massachusetts Hall.
“Tammy sent many, many e-mails, and many, many letters, and has only been rebuffed,” Susanna Moore said. “And so we’re hoping that with a more public demand that they pay attention.”
The plan was to hand-deliver Bacow a letter signed by 43 Agassiz descendants, demanding that Harvard turn over the photos. The families hoped the show of unity would pressure the school to relent.
“For Harvard to give the daguerreotypes to Ms. Lanier and her family would begin to make amends for its use of the photos as exhibits for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused,” the letter said. “It is time for Harvard to recognize Renty and Delia as people.”
But the group was met at the door to Massachusetts Hall by a startled security guard who barred access to the building.
The families didn’t get to see Bacow, but they did get to drop off their letter.
“We have received it, and have no further comment,” Dane told the Globe on Thursday afternoon.
“They said that president Bacow is not available. . . . Whether he’s here or not, I don’t know,” Moore said. “It’s completely predictable that he would not be willing to see us, because then he would have to face his lack of humanity.”