Conn. woman can sue Harvard for emotional distress for photo of enslaved ancestor 

Tamara Lanier claims to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Renty Taylor, an enslaved man photographed nude at the request of a racist Harvard researcher.

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Over 170 years after a racist Harvard researcher requested photographs be taken of an enslaved Black man for pseudoscientific uses, a woman claiming to be a descendant of the man pictured is able to sue the university for emotional distress, according to a recent court decision.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Tamara Lanier of Connecticut could have reasonably experienced emotional distress due to Harvard’s use of the photos, per The Washington Post.

The photographs, taken in 1850, depict the enslaved Renty Taylor nude beside his daughter. The photographs were ordered by Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz to promote his theory of “polygenism.” Agassiz believed descendants of Africans were inferior and lacked common ancestry with other peoples. 

Taylor was reportedly kidnapped from the Congo River basin and sold into slavery. He and his daughter, possibly then a minor, were taken to a studio, ordered to remove their clothes and pose naked for the photographs.

Harvard has possessed the photos since they were rediscovered in 1976, using them in recent years on a book cover and to promote a conference, the outlet reported.

Lanier, a former probation officer, reportedly learned of the photographs nearly a decade ago while doing genealogical research. She told the Post she saw “pride and determination” in Taylor and his daughter’s faces, and recognized the family resemblance.

She claimed in a 2019 lawsuit against Harvard that the school has not responded to her requests for further information on the intended use of the photos and refused to acknowledge that she is a descendant of Taylor.

Her lawsuit was originally discarded by a lower court — a decision partially vacated by the state’s highest court on Thursday, according to the Post.

“Harvard’s past complicity in the repugnant actions by which the daguerreotypes were produced informs its present responsibilities to the descendants of the individuals coerced into having their half-naked images captured in the daguerreotypes,” wrote Justice Scott Kafker in his opinion.

The court, however, did not agree that Lanier could claim ownership of the images, as she is not a descendant of the photographer or the owners of the image, per the Post.

Lanier’s attorneys Ben Crump and Josh Koskoff said they now intend to sue Harvard in an effort to “repair the damage and degradation that they have caused Tamara Lanier, her ancestors, and all other people of color exploited by [Harvard].”

“We are gratified by the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Tamara Lanier’s case against Harvard University for the horrible exploitation of her Black ancestors, as this ruling will give Ms. Lanier her day in court to advocate for the memory of Renty,” Crump and Koskoff stated, per the outlet.

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