Norwich woman sues Harvard over slavery photos she claims are of her ancestors

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NORWICH, CT (WFSB) – Harvard University recently announced that it will commit $100 million to right past wrongs.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts school has acknowledged that slaves once worked on campus.

For Norwich’s Tamara Lanier, the announcement was too little too late.

Lanier is suing the university over photos she says were taken of her enslaved ancestors under the guidance of a Harvard biologist.

“That’s the origin of the history of racial profiling, and it started at Harvard,” Lanier said.

The images are brutal. Lanier claims they are his family, Papa Renty and his daughter Delia.

The images, known as daguerreotypes, were commissioned by a Harvard biologist in the mid-1800s.

“The purpose of the daguerreotypes was to give ocular proof of racial inferiority and they used my slave ancestors to do that,” Lanier said.

Although Harvard has long acknowledged the racism behind this thesis, the school still owns the daguerreotypes, which are believed to be among the earliest images of slaves.

This is where his trial comes in.

“It’s a deaf colonizer argument that we have a right to despoiled property,” Lanier said. “Our claim is about property rights and the right for me to inherit what we believe to be the property of my ancestors.”

Lanier first filed the lawsuit in 2019, and a Massachusetts court ruled in favor of Harvard retaining the footage.

Harvard argued that Lanier does not have sufficiently definitive evidence that the people in the photos are her relatives or that she has a legal right to the images.

Lanier said she did as much genealogy as possible going back to a time when record keeping, especially for slaves, was rare.

“Because of the destruction of archives, because of the war,” she said.

The case then went to the state Supreme Judicial Court, where the judges put questions to the school’s attorney.

“Just because you’re the photographer doesn’t mean you keep the photo. There are exceptions to this rule,” said Justice Scott Kafker, MA Supreme Court Judicial. “If you kidnap someone and take a picture of them half-naked, you can’t keep the pictures.”

The Supreme Judicial Court will decide whether the lower court’s decision stands or is reversed.

Channel 3 has contacted Harvard for comment. He declined but fired the station on the announcement of a new program intended to address historical links to slavery.

The school’s administration said it is pledging $100 million for outreach efforts to direct descendants, descendant communities, and historically black colleges and universities.

“I honestly believe this is a public relations event,” Lanier said.

That wasn’t enough for Lanier, who said no one from Harvard had contacted her since the program was announced.

She said she just wanted pictures of Renty and Delia.

“At that time, this country was divided on the issue of slavery and Harvard had its academic thumb on the scales,” Lanier said.

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