Tamara Lanier poses for a portrait in her Norwich, Conn., home, Feb. 28, 2019. A Massachusetts judge dismissed a lawsuit, on March 2, 2021, by a Lanier claiming that she, not Harvard University, is the rightful owner of haunting images of an enslaved father and daughter who she says were her ancestors
A Massachusetts judge has dismissed a lawsuit by a woman claiming that she, not Harvard University, is the rightful owner of haunting images of an enslaved father and daughter who she says were her ancestors.
The judge acknowledged that the daguerreotypes had been taken under “horrific circumstances” but said that if the enslaved subjects, Renty and Delia, did not own the images when they were taken in 1850, then the woman who brought the lawsuit, Tamara Lanier, did not own them either.
“Fully acknowledging the continuing impact slavery has had in the United States, the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be,” Justice Camille F. Sarrouf of Middlesex County Superior Court wrote in a judgment filed Tuesday.
Lanier said Thursday that she planned to appeal and that the judge had “completely missed the humanistic aspect of this, where we’re talking about the patriarch of a family, a subject of bedtime stories, whose legacy is still denied to these people.”
Renty and Delia were stripped to the waist in the daguerreotypes, taken in 1850, and treated as scientific evidence of a discredited theory that Black people were inferior. The images, part of a project commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a prominent Harvard professor and zoologist, were hidden away in a Harvard museum until 1976. Their discovery caused a sensation because they were thought to be the earliest known photographs of American slaves.
For the purposes of the lawsuit, neither Harvard nor the judge disputed Lanier’s evidence that she was a direct descendant of Renty. But, Sarrouf wrote, “It is a basic tenet of common law that the subject of a photograph has no interest in the negative or any photographs printed from the negative.”