Harvard University is being sued by a descendant of two African-American slaves whose photos are currently stored in an on-campus museum as cultural artifacts.
According to The New York Times, 54-year-old Tamara Lanier filed a lawsuit in Middlesex County Superior Court on Wednesday, alleging the university of using the images for “advertising and commercial purposes” and bringing in a profit.
The photos in question, made using the daguerreotype process, were taken in 1850 at a studio in South Carolina. They feature the images of two African-American slaves, a father and daughter, known by their first names Renty and his daughter Delia.
The photos were commissioned by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz to support his beliefs in polygenesis, the theory that black and white people descended from different origins.
“To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens,” the lawsuit reads. “The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered.”
Lanier, who claims she is a direct descendant of Renty and Delia, believes that Harvard’s ongoing possession of the photos violates the 13th Amendment of the constitution that abolished slavery.
“These photographs make it clear that Harvard benefited from slavery then and continues to benefit now,” Lanier’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, said in a statement. “By my calculation, Renty is 169 years a slave. When will Harvard finally set him free?”
Despite her repeated requests, including writing a letter to Harvard’s president in 2011, the school has continued to deny Lanier possession of pictures.
The suit is seeking a jury trial and an unspecified monetary amount in punitive and emotional damages, including an end to the licensing of and a return of the photographs.