University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in an interview Friday that he is confident Harvard is on the right side of the law in a lawsuit alleging that Harvard unlawfully possesses and profits off two photographs of American slaves that are believed to be the oldest of their kind in existence.
Tamara K. Lanier filed the lawsuit against Harvard on March 20, alleging that the University illegally maintains the daguerreotypes, which she says depicts her great-great-great grandfather, Renty, and his daughter, Delia. She also alleges that Harvard played a role in perpetuating slavery. Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz commissioned the photos in the 19th century in an attempt to prove a theory of white superiority, according to the complaint.
Bacow took issue with Lanier’s claims that the school has “refused” to acknowledge its ties to the American slave trade and was profiting off of the images.
Though the University has yet to file a formal response to the claims, Bacow defended Harvard’s position, referencing former University President Drew G. Faust’s efforts to recognize Harvard’s complicity in slavery in an interview Friday.
In 2016, Faust, along with United States Representative John R. Lewis (D-Ga.), dedicated a plaque to four enslaved persons who lived and worked on campus in the 18th century. She also accepted a Harvard Law School committee’s recommendation to remove the school’s seal, which included the Royall family crest. Isaac Royall, Jr., whose family owned slaves in the 18th century, helped endow Harvard’s first law professorship.
“The suggestion that Harvard has failed to acknowledge its past links, or to engage on these issues, it's just not true,” Bacow said.
Bacow said the images were displayed with the intent to illustrate the slaves’ humanity.
“The way in which the University displayed the images of the daguerreotypes, my understanding from President Faust — and you may wish to speak to her — was designed specifically to call people's attention to the fact that these were not chattel,” Bacow said. “These were real people.”
Lanier’s lawyer, Joshua D. Koskoff, wrote in an emailed statement that Bacow’s comments do not absolve the University of the allegations filed in the lawsuit.
“President Bacow’s comments are sadly nothing more than a continuation of Harvard’s refusal to fully reckon with its past, as well as its ongoing campaign of belittling the legitimacy and seriousness of Ms. Lanier’s claims, that resulted in her having to file this lawsuit,” Koskoff wrote.
“We encourage all Harvard students to read our complaint and make up their own minds about whether they share President Bacow’s sentiments and whether the conduct of the institution reflects the laudable principles it claims to abide by,” he added.
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on Koskoff’s statement, citing the fact that the suit is pending litigation.
In Friday’s interview, Bacow also said the University does not profit of the images and only charges a “nominal fee” for reproductions.
Though he said he is confident that the University is on the right side of this case, Bacow said he hopes the suit can stay out of the courts.
“I think we have the law on our side. Again, I would hope, though, that we could resolve this not purely by resort to legal process,” Bacow said. “I think there's recognition that we need to be sensitive in the utilization of these images.”
Bacow added that he hopes to “engage in a conversation” with the family about the photos.
“Our desire is not just simply to litigate this, but rather to engage in a conversation with family and see if we can reach some reasonable accommodation,” Bacow said.
However the University decides to respond to the daguerreotypes lawsuit, Bacow said the school has not hidden the images’ “troubling” circumstances.
“My understanding is that the University has acknowledged those circumstances,” Bacow said. “And it’s not tried to hide them in any way, shape, or form.”
Lanier’s lawsuit is not the only instance of Harvard revisiting its controversial past in recent weeks.
Two days after Lanier filed her suit in Middlesex Superior Court, incoming Lowell House Faculty Deans David I. Laibson ’88 and Nina Zipser announced they would not display portraits of former University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, and his wife Anna Parker Lowell, when the house reopens after its complete renovation in the fall.
Lowell served as University President from 1909 to 1933 and is remembered for creating the house system and integrating students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. He was also known, however, for being a racist, homophobe, xenophobe, and anti-Semite.
During Friday’s interview, Bacow said the decision to not to hang the portraits in the renovated Lowell House should be up to the Faculty Deans.
“The faculty deans are — David and Nina — are far closer to this than I am,” Bacow said.
—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.