The Harvard Generational African American Students Association and the Harvard Coalition to Free Renty hosted an hour-long webinar Tuesday evening to discuss an ongoing lawsuit and campaign regarding Harvard’s possession of images taken of slaves.
Tamara K. Lanier sued the University last March over the rights to the daguerreotypes, which scholars believe to be some of the oldest images of slaves. Her complaint says they depict her great-great-great-grandfather Renty and his daughter Delia.
The webinar, titled “Lanier v. Harvard: The Power of Black Images & Identity,” featured several panelists, including Lanier, Grammy Award-winning singer George E. Clinton, and attorney Benjamin L. Crump, who represents Lanier in the lawsuit.
During the event, Crump criticized Harvard for using Louis Agassiz as the namesake of the Agassiz Theater. Agassiz, a 19th-century Harvard professor, allegedly commissioned the images at the center of the lawsuit in order to prove his scientific theory of white superiority.
The webinar also discussed the importance of ethical stewardship in caring for the daguerreotypes.
Lanier said during the webinar that Harvard’s response to both the case and her inquiries over the past 10 years is unethical and contrary to what an ethical steward should do: to “not resist, not deny, and not deflect from the issues.”
“I question how they could frame that thought in saying that ‘we are the better caretakers because we can afford to be’ and that ‘we are the ethical stewards because we have the property’ and not want to engage in how they illegally acquired it,” Lanier said.
Lanier added that surrendering the ownership of such priceless items would constitute a “huge transference of wealth.”
“In my mind, I think they’re opening a precedent where now we have to look at the nature of Harvard’s wealth and what other historic images they might have or what other artifacts that they might have that may belong to someone else that they would then in turn have to return it,” Lanier said.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the webinar discussion. In past statements, University President Lawrence S. Bacow has noted that the University makes only “nominal” profits in connection with the images. As of Sept. 1, Harvard will no longer charge a processing fee to account for charges associated with copying the images unless new photographs are necessary.
Bacow has also cited Harvard's work to reckon with its ties to slavery. In November, he launched a group to examine those connections.
GAASA president and panel moderator Samantha C. W. O’Sullivan ’22 characterized Harvard as “hypocritical” during the event. Referencing Bacow’s claim that Harvard has “the law on our side,” O’Sullivan said in an interview that she found the University’s defense to be largely based on flawed logic.
“The law was also on the side of slavery and what happened at the time,” O’Sullivan said. “So I really hope that people will take away from this event a legal understanding, but also a moral understanding and hopefully a moral conviction on the side of Tamara Lanier and on the side of descendants receiving ownership as a form of ultimately reparations.”
Roughly 100 attendees tuned into the Zoom webinar, though more viewers watched the Facebook livestream of the event, according to O’Sullivan. Throughout the webinar, attendees wrote in the comments section that they found Harvard’s actions regarding the case to be hypocritical.
GAASA began sponsoring the Harvard Coalition to Free Renty last spring. Since then, it has worked with Lanier to raise awareness for her campaign among the Harvard student body.
Citing recent national events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, O’Sullivan said she believes the public’s focus should not be limited to instances of police brutality.
“I think it’s also important that we focus on all the other ways that Black lives have been oppressed and silenced,” O’Sullivan said. “And as students at Harvard, I think it’s really important that we think really critically about Harvard’s role in all of this, in the oppression of Black voices and Black ownership.”
Over the last few weeks, the Harvard Coalition to Free Renty urged Harvard affiliates to demand the images’ release to Lanier’s family. The group suggested affiliates email Bacow reiterating Lanier’s demands, submit videos stating how they personally identify with the case, and sign a petition to be sent to Bacow.
O’Sullivan said she hopes all Harvard students to participate in these initiatives, regardless of their personal identity.
“All of our histories — all the reasons we’re all here — are fundamentally tied to slavery, so it’s not just a Black issue, it’s an ‘everyone’ issue,” she said.
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