Woman suing Harvard over slave portraits gains support of controversial prof's relatives

A Connecticut woman suing Harvard University for 19th-century images of slaves she says were her ancestors has been backed by descendants of the professor who commissioned the images in a bid to prove blacks were inferior to whites.

On Thursday, 43 of Louis Agassiz’s descendants, several of whom have degrees from Harvard, delivered a letter to university President Lawrence Bacow and the Board of Overseers asking the university to return daguerreotypes of an enslaved African man named Renty, and his daughter, Delia, to plaintiff Tamara Lanier.

The images, which Agassiz commissioned in 1850, are believed to be the earliest known photographs of slaves.

This copy of a 1850 Daguerreotype shows Renty, a South Carolina slave. (Courtesy of Harvard University/The Norwich Bulletin via AP)

Lanier, who says she is Renty’s great-great-great granddaughter, sued Harvard in March for “wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of images. Her suit, filed in the state court, demands that Harvard give back the photos, acknowledge her ancestry and pay unspecified damages. Harvard continues to profit from the images, the suit says.

The letter from Aggasiz's relatives argued that the Swiss-born biologist's racist beliefs were used to justify slavery by those who profited from it, the family said.

Tamara Lanier holds an 1850 photograph of Renty, a South Carolina slave who Lanier claims is her great-great-great grandfather. (John Shishmanian/The Norwich Bulletin via AP)

“For too many years, we have ignored Agassiz’s role in promoting a pseudoscientific for white supremacy,” the letter informs. “We see this as a collective failure to live up to our values of anti-racism and compassion. Now is the time to name, acknowledge and redress the harm done by Louis Agassiz.”

Lanier welcomed the support of Agassiz’s family.

“We hope that the lesson of confronting the past head on is one that Harvard can learn from Papa Renty,” she said in a statement.” Slave owners profited from his suffering – it’s time for Harvard to stop doing the same thing to our family."


Harvard spokeswoman Rachel Dane said in an email to The Associated Press that Harvard "cannot comment on the subject of ongoing litigation," but added that Harvard "has and will continue to come to terms with and address its historic connection to slavery."

The images are currently kept in a special storage room at Harvard’s Peabody Museum due to their fragility.

Fox News' Francesca Walton and The Associated Press contributed to this report.