NORWICH, Conn. – The two slaves, a father and daughter, were stripped to the waist and, positioned for frontal and side views. Then, their pictures were taken, as part of a racist study arguing that black people were an inferior race.
Now, 169 years later, they are at the center of a dispute over who should own the fruits of American slavery.
On Wednesday, Tamara Lanier, 54, filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts saying that she is a direct descendant of the pair, who were identified by their first names, Renty and Delia, and that the photographs — commissioned by a professor at Harvard and now stored in a campus museum — are hers.
The images, Lanier said, are records of her personal family history, not cultural artifacts to be kept by an institution. "These were our bedtime stories," said Lanier's daughter Shonrael.
The case renews focus on the role that the country's oldest universities played in slavery, and also comes amid a growing debate over whether the descendants of the enslaved are entitled to reparations.
"Renty's descendants may be the first descendants of slave ancestors to be able to get their property rights," said Benjamin Crump, one of Lanier's lawyers.
Jonathan Swain, a spokesman for Harvard, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Universities in recent years have acknowledged and expressed contrition for their ties to slavery. And a series of federal laws has also compelled museums to repatriate human remains and sacred objects to American Indian tribes.
The lawsuit says the images are the "spoils of theft," because as slaves Renty and Delia were unable to give consent. It says that the university is illegally profiting from the images, such as by using Renty's image on the cover of a $40 anthropology book. And it argues that by holding on to the images, Harvard has perpetuated the hallmarks of slavery that prevented African-Americans from holding, conveying or inheriting personal property.
The daguerreotypes, forgotten until 1976, were thought to be the earliest known photographs of American slaves.
In 2017, Lanier and her daughter attended a conference at Harvard on the links between academia and slavery that included writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. They said they were offended to see the speakers positioned under a huge projection of Renty's face.
In an interview, Coates said, "That photograph is like a hostage photograph. This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda."