UPDATED: September 7, 2020, 6:16 p.m.
In their first meeting of the fall semester, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council unanimously voted to pass a statement condemning Harvard’s possession of images taken of slaves that is at the center of an ongoing lawsuit.
Tamara K. Lanier sued the University last year to gain rights to the daguerreotypes, which scholars believe are some of the oldest images of slaves. They depict Lanier’s great-great-great-grandfather, Renty, and his daughter, Delia, according to her complaint.
The Act called on the Council to sign a petition demanding that Harvard give the daguerreotypes to Renty and Delia’s descendants. It also condemned the University’s ongoing possession of the images, which Harvard houses in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
“President Bacow, it is not your place, nor is it the place of the University or affiliated institutions, to claim ownership under the law for Renty and Delia. Let them go home, and begin to set a new standard for Harvard that all students, faculty and the community can respect,” the legislation read.
The Act asked Council members to “imagine your great grandparents were enslaved, exploited, forced to strip naked, photographed against their will, those photographs are publicly shared today...and there was nothing you could do about it.”
UC treasurer Noah A. Harris ’22 and Ivy Yard Representative Chloe E.V. Koulefianou ’23 sponsored the legislation supporting Lanier’s suit alongside the UC’s Black Caucus.
“We felt that it was our obligation to speak up about the photos that Harvard is profiting off of, of Renty and his daughter Delia,” Harris said. “There are amazing students doing great things with GAASA, the Generational African American Student Association, as well as the coalition of students working on this, and we just wanted to elevate their work that they’re doing as well as call out Harvard.”
“It’s one thing to not admit wrongdoing in the past, but it’s another thing to bring that wrongdoing and then profit off of it in the past,” he added.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow said last April that he believed the University had “the law on our side” with regard to the lawsuit. He added that any profits Harvard makes in connection with the images are “nominal.”
The University previously charged a processing fee to account for charges associated with copying the images. As of September 1, it will not charge any fees unless new photographs are necessary.
Lanier’s lawyer, Benjamin L. Crump, has previously said that Harvard’s ongoing possession of the images amounts to “saying to Tammy Lanier and her family that Renty still is a slave, he still does not own his image.”
In response to the resolution, FAS spokesperson Rachael Dane pointed to a group Bacow formed last fall aimed at addressing Harvard's ties to slavery, among other initiatives.
The petition to give the photographs to Lanier has garnered over 1,000 signatures, of which at least 200 are Harvard affiliates.
In addition to voting on the daguerreotypes, Council members also discussed gender imbalances within the group, according to UC Technology and Communications Director Esther J. Xiang ’23. Of the Council’s 26 current members, 17 are men.
“The UC is this majority male body, and there’s a lot of male-dominated spaces,” said Xiang. “Gender bias is definitely something that we need to be thinking about.”
—Staff Writer Hannah J. Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinezhj.