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Mass. Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments Over Harvard’s Possession of Photos Depicting Enslaved People

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In the opening salvo of their effort to appeal the March dismissal of Lanier v. Harvard, lawyers for Tamara K. Lanier and Harvard argued before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Monday about whether the University unlawfully possesses and profits from historic photos Lanier says depict her enslaved ancestors.

The hour-and-15-minute long hearing before the state’s Supreme Court comes eight months after a Middlesex Superior Court judge dismissed the suit on the grounds that the statute of limitations had passed and that Lanier did not have property rights to the daguerreotypes.

Lanier’s suit, filed against the University in March 2019, centers on the daguerreotypes of two enslaved people named Renty and Delia, which scholars believe to be some of the oldest images of enslaved people. According to Lanier, they depict her great-great-great-grandfather Renty and his daughter Delia.

Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz commissioned the photos in the 19th century as part of a pseudo-scientific study to prove the superiority of white people. Lanier requested in the suit that Harvard turn the daguerreotypes over to her, relinquish any profit made through the images, and pay her punitive damages.

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On Monday, Lanier’s legal team sought to convince the justices that, just as Massachusetts had abolished slavery in 1783, the Court had the ability to change history and order repatriation rights to the descendants of enslaved people.

“The fact that I stand before you as a free man and not a slave is a testament to someone's decision to change the course of human history,” Attorney Benjamin L. Crump, one of Lanier’s lawyers, said in his opening argument.

“It is a testament to our legal system,” he added.

Crump and his co-counsel, attorney Joshua D. Koskoff, argued Lanier is entitled to the daguerreotypes because her pictured ancestors, Renty and Delia, had a property or “possessory” right to the photographs.

Amid the justices’ dissection of their legal argument, Koskoff pushed back on the definition of “property,” claiming that moving past the idea of property as something bought or sold was essential to understanding the crux of the case. Property, Koskoff argued, is anything that is exchanged for value.

“First of all, when we typically get our photographs taken, they’re taken of us, not from us,” Koskoff said. “Photographers don’t typically, hopefully, abuse us to get photographs.”

He also argued that Renty and Delia were falsely imprisoned and deprived of their rights to privacy given the coercive nature of the photographs.

“But if ever there was a taking of value, it was the taking of Renty and Delia in these abusive and torturous circumstances,” he said.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that the University was “grateful” to Lanier for “sparking important conversations” about the daguerreotypes and the “horrific circumstances” under which they were created.

“We have long been willing to place these images with another museum or other public institution to put them in the appropriate context and increase their access for communities of color and all Americans,” Dane wrote. “The active litigation has prevented us from moving forward with this goal.”

During the hearing, Harvard’s lawyer Anton Melitsky argued that Lanier was not entitled to the photographs because photographers own the pictures they take. Melitsky also said the statute of limitations on the case had passed, given that Lanier first contacted former University President Drew G. Faust regarding the photos in 2011.

Melitsky also said that for this case, Harvard would not dispute whether Lanier is a lineal descendant of the enslaved subjects.

Following the hearing, Lanier said during a press conference that besides the legal argument, the most important part of the hearing had been the “promises unbroken.”

“What I was thinking about were the promises unbroken, the promises that I made to my mother, the promises that she made to her ancestors to tell the true story — to tell the legacy of her enslaved ancestor, Papa Renty,” she said.

Crump said the state Supreme Court was the appropriate place to litigate the arguments raised in Lanier’s suit — and fitting that it would happen at the John Adams Courthouse, where slavery in Massachusetts was abolished in 1783. He added that this case was “170 years in the making.”

“This was a case not just for Miss Lanier, but it really was for the ancestors who for generations have said, ‘We have a right to tell our own narrative, a right to tell our own story, not for Harvard University to tell the right of enslaved Africans after they perpetuated slavery in America,'” Crump said.

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at raquel.coronelluribe@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.

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