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Harvard student government sides with slave descendants in lawsuit against school

Student government condemns Harvard’s possession of photographs of slaves

The student government at Harvard University is wading into an ongoing feud between the descendants of slaves and the Ivy League institution.

The Undergraduate Council passed a resolution at its September 6 meeting which demands that Harvard give a group of photos of slaves from the 19th century to the people claiming to be the descendants of the subjects in the photos.

It’s another part of a one-and-half year long lawsuit against the university for photos of a father-daughter pair of slaves, Renty and Delia. In total, the battle between the slaves’ descendants and the university started nine years ago.

The plaintiffs seek punitive damages from the university for displaying the photos, while campus leaders have maintained they are part of a historical display used for educational purposes and to highlight the humanity of the slaves.

The photos were taken in 1850 by a former Harvard professor and biologist, Louis Agassiz, who wanted to use them to show his belief in the superiority of white people. The photos are currently displayed at the university’s Peabody Museum.

The September 6 resolution, titled “An Act To Endorse A Statement Against Profiting From Slavery,” urged the university to stop using copyright law to maintain ownership of the photos and explained Agassiz’ racist beliefs.

Further, it criticized the university for continuing to display the photos, which the university has argued is to show how the slaves were real people.

In April 2019, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow told the Harvard Crimson that the law is on the side of the university and the museum display “was designed specifically to call people’s attention to the fact that these were not chattel” but “were real people.”

The undergraduate council’s resolution rejected this assertion.

“Representatives of Harvard claim the present-day context in displaying them aims to highlight Africans’ humanity,” the council’s secretary said in an appended statement at the end of the resolution. “However, the deep and true context for the slaves, for Renty and Delia, will never change.”

The council’s secretary added: “This historical, disturbing context is frozen within the faces of each frame, and respectfully deserve to be laid to rest in the hands of their descendants.”

The student government also put its signature and endorsement behind a change.org petition with over 1,000 signatures that calls on the university to return the photos. The student government did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Harvard University’s media relations office did not respond to multiple emailed requests and phone calls seeking comment from The College Fix on the resolution and the status of the lawsuit in the past week.

The Peabody Museum declined via email to answer questions from The College Fix.

Battle started in 2011

The lawsuit against the university was first filed in March 2019. Tamara Lanier, who said that one slave pictured, Renty, is her great-great-great grandfather, filed the civil lawsuit.

But Lanier first wrote a letter to then-Harvard president Drew Faust in 2011 seeking information on how the university used the photos, according to the Crimson.

Her lawsuit demanded Harvard return the photos to her and pay her punitive damages.

Attorney Benjamin Crump, who has also represented Jacob Blake and the family of Breonna Taylor, is one of the attorneys on the case. His office did not return several phone calls seeking comment from The Fix on the status of the lawsuit.

The Peabody Museum told the Crimson in March 2019 that it does not profit off of the photos but does charge a $15 fee to create a high quality version of the daguerreotypes. It is free to license the photos and they are in the public domain, the museum’s spokesperson told the Crimson.

Agassiz’s descendants wrote a letter to the university in June 2019 asking the university to turn the photos over to Lanier.

In January 2020, students formed the Harvard Coalition to Free Renty to advocate for the return of the photos.

MORE: Harvard activist group wants Board of Overseers renamed because of slavery

IMAGE: Gil C / Shutterstock.com

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About the Author
Ashley Carnahan is a senior at the University of California Berkeley majoring in Business Administration with a minor in Russian. Ashley also writes for Campus Reform. Outside of classes, Ashley is a member of Berkeley's Turning Point USA chapter. After graduation, she plans on applying to grad school for journalism.

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