Posts Tagged Harvard University

“Who Should Own Photos of Slaves? The Descendants, not Harvard, a Lawsuit Says.” (New York Times, March 20, 2019)

Tamara Lanier is suing Harvard University for ownership of daguerreotypes of slaves who she says are her ancestors.

Tamara Lanier is suing Harvard University for ownership of daguerreotypes of slaves who she says are her ancestors. Karsten Moran for The New York Times.

NORWICH, Conn. — The two slaves, a father and daughter, were stripped to the waist and positioned for frontal and side views. Then, like subjects in contemporary mug shots, their pictures were taken, as part of a racist study arguing that black people were an inferior race.

Almost 170 years later, they are at the center of a dispute over who should own the fruits of American slavery.

The images of the father and daughter, identified by their first names, Renty and Delia, were commissioned by a professor at Harvard and are now stored in a museum on campus as precious cultural artifacts.

But to the Lanier family, they are records of a personal family history. “These were our bedtime stories,” Shonrael Lanier said.

On Wednesday, Ms. Lanier’s mother, Tamara, 54, filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts saying that she is a direct descendant of Renty and Delia, and that the valuable photographs are rightfully hers. The case renews focus on the role that the country’s oldest universities played in slavery, and comes amid a growing debate over whether the descendants of enslaved people are entitled to reparations — and what those reparations might look like.

“It is unprecedented in terms of legal theory and reclaiming property that was wrongfully taken,” Benjamin Crump, one of Ms. Lanier’s lawyers, said. “Renty’s descendants may be the first descendants of slave ancestors to be able to get their property rights.”

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. Harvard Law School abandoned an 80-year-old shield based on the crest of a slaveholding family that helped endow the institution. Georgetown University decided to give an advantage in admissions to descendants of enslaved people who were sold to fund the school.

A program for a 2017 conference at Harvard on the links between academia and slavery. The program bears the image of Renty, a slave from whom Ms. Lanier says she descended. Karsten Moran for The New York Times.

A series of federal laws has also compelled museums to repatriate human remains and sacred objects to Native American 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 by using them for “advertising and commercial purposes,” 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.

“I keep thinking, tongue in cheek a little bit, this has been 169 years a slave, and Harvard still won’t free Papa Renty,” said Mr. Crump, who in 2012 represented the family of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager killed by a community watch member in Florida. Ms. Lanier is also represented by Josh Koskoff, a lawyer who represents families of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre victims.

Renty and Delia were among seven slaves who appeared in 15 images made using the daguerreotype process, an early form of photography imprinted on silvered copper plates.

The pictures are haunting and voyeuristic, with the subjects staring at the camera with detached expressions.

The daguerreotypes were commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born zoologist and Harvard professor who is sometimes called the father of American natural science. They were taken in 1850 by J.T. Zealy, in a studio in Columbia, S.C.

Agassiz, a rival of Charles Darwin, subscribed to polygenesis, the theory that black and white people descended from different origins. The theory, later discredited, was used to promote the racist idea that black people were inferior to whites. Agassiz viewed the slaves as anatomical specimens to document his beliefs, according to historical sources.

The daguerreotypes were forgotten until they were discovered in an unused storage cabinet in the attic of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1976. They were thought to be the earliest known photographs of American slaves.

Notes found with the images give small clues as to the identity of the slaves — their names, plantations and tribes. Renty was born in Congo, according to the label on his daguerreotype.


An inventory from 1834 listing the slaves on the plantation of Col. Thomas Taylor in Columbia, S.C. The names Big Renty and Renty appear on the list. Karsten Moran for The New York Times.

In 2017, Ms. Lanier and her daughter attended a conference at Harvard on the links between academia and slavery that included speakers such as Drew Faust, Harvard’s president at the time, and the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. They said they were offended to see the speakers positioned under a huge projection of Renty’s face.

Mr. Coates, the author of a widely discussed article making the case for reparations, said in an interview that while he deeply respected the scholars at the conference, he sympathized with Ms. Lanier’s cause.

“That photograph is like a hostage photograph,” Mr. Coates said of Renty’s image. “This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda — that’s what that photograph was taken for.”

He said he understood how Ms. Lanier felt seeing it at the conference. “I get why it would bother her,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of all that at the time.”

Interviewed at her home in Norwich, Ms. Lanier, a retired chief probation officer for the State of Connecticut, said she had not heard of the photos until about 2010, when she began tracing her genealogy for a family project.

Her mother, Mattye Pearl Thompson-Lanier, who died that year, had passed down a strong oral tradition of their family’s lineage from an African ancestor called “Papa Renty.” Shonrael, Ms. Lanier’s daughter, wrote a fifth-grade project about her ancestor in 1996.

The lawsuit could hinge on evidence of that chain of ancestry. Ms. Lanier’s amateur sleuthing led to death records, census records and a handwritten inventory from 1834 of the slaves on the plantation of Col. Thomas Taylor in Columbia and their dollar values.

The slave inventory lists a Big Renty and a Renty, and listed under the latter is Delia. Ms. Lanier believes that Big Renty is her “Papa Renty” and the father of Renty and Delia, and has traced them to her mother, who was born to sharecroppers in Montgomery, Ala.

Her genealogical research has its skeptics. Gregg Hecimovich, who is contributing to a book about the slave daguerreotypes, to be published by the Peabody next year, said it was important to note that the slave inventory has the heading “To Wit, in Families.” Big Renty and Renty are at the top of separate groupings, he said, implying that they are the heads of separate families.

The image of Renty was one of several daguerreotypes commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor who believed that black people and white people descended from different origins. J.T. Zealy, via the Peabody Museum, Harvard University

“I’d be very excited to work with Tamara,” said Dr. Hecimovich, who is chairman of the English department at Furman University. “But the bigger issue is it would be very hard to make a slam-dunk case that she believes she has.”

Molly Rogers, the author of a previous book about the images called “Delia’s Tears,” said that tracing families under slavery was extremely complex. “It’s not necessarily by blood,” she said. “It could be people who take responsibility for each other. Terms, names, family relationships are very much complicated by the fact of slavery.”

One intellectual property lawyer, Rick Kurnit, said he thought Ms. Lanier would have a hard time claiming ownership of the daguerreotypes. He said the famous photograph “V-J Day in Times Square,” for instance, belonged to the photographer and not to the sailor or the nurse who are kissing. But that image, of course, was taken in a public space.

Yxta Maya Murray, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, said that images taken by force were tantamount to robbery. “If she’s a descendant, then I would stand for her,” Professor Murray said of Ms. Lanier.

One argument for keeping the daguerreotypes in a museum is that they are fragile physical objects, which degrade when exposed to light, said Robin Bernstein, a professor of cultural history at Harvard who has studied them.

She declined to take a position in the legal dispute, but said that the images were safe at the Peabody. “Frankly, there are other repositories to keep them safe,” she said. “What I do know is that no ordinary individual such as myself could keep them safe in a home.”

The question remains what Ms. Lanier would do with the images of Renty and Delia if she were to win her case in court.

Ms. Lanier, who is asking for a jury trial and unspecified punitive and emotional damages, says she does not know, and would have to have a family meeting about it. She does not rule out licensing the images.

Mr. Crump, her lawyer, had another idea. The daguerreotypes, he said, should be taken on a tour of America, so that everyone can see them.

Doris Burke contributed research.


A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Taking On Harvard Over Rights to Slave Photos. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Harvard graduate William Abjah White ran with Frederick Douglass on antislavery circuit; attacked by mob violence

Portrait of William Abijah White, 1818 - 1856.

Harvard graduate William Abjah White ran with Dr. Douglass on the lecture circuit.

William Abjah White died in Milwaukie [sic], Wis., 10 October, 1856, aged 38. He was son of Abijah and Anne Maria (Howard) White, and was born in Watertown, Mass., 2 September, 1818. He was fitted for college at the school of Rev. Samuel Ripley (H.C. 1804), of Waltham, Mass.

Having chosen the profession of law, he, immediately after graduating, entered the Law School in Cambridge, where he pursued his professional; but becoming very much interested in the antislavery and temperance movements, he devoted much of his time to lecturing on these subjects, and, in 1843, spent several months in travelling through Ohio and Indiana, holding antislavery meetings in company with Frederick Douglass and George Badburn.

In the course of this tour, their meetings were frequently broken up by mobs; and both White and Douglass were, on one occasion, severely wounded by stones.

SOURCE:

Palmer, Joseph. Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College, 1851-52 to 1862-63. Printed by John Wilson and Son. Boston. p. 150

 

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Why does Yale Professor David Blight say, he wants to “chain [Frederick Douglass] to a chair”? Blight exposes himself as a closet racist. Entire history community liable.

IMG_5849W Street Douglassonians can determine on at least two separate occasions — Harvard Law School in November 2016 and Maryland Historical Society in February 2018 — when Yale Professor David Blight has spoken of hypothetically chaining Frederick Douglass to a chair in order to interrogate him as to his “manipulative” autobiographies.

At Harvard Blight said:

And that’s the first problem that anyone working on Douglass faces. It’s how the autobiography is always in the way of the biographer.  The problem with Douglass is that the subject is always in your way. And you’re constantly trying to get around him, through him, over him. Sometimes, you just want to sit on him. You know, chain him to a chair – bad metaphor – and say, “Stop now!” Why don’t you talk about these 100 subjects in your autobiography?

At the Maryland Historical Society Blight said:

I have this imaginary seminar that we’re going to have someday with Douglass and he’s going to be at the end of the table and we’re going to — bad metaphor — but we’re going to chain him to the chair! He can’t get out!

This is sickening. This is dangerous. This statement is calculated, deliberative and manipulative. This is racist.

This is an older white historian from Yale describing, for at least the second time in a public setting, a fantasy (he claims he has had) where he intends to “chain [Frederick Douglass] to the chair!”

That David Blight has masqueraded as a “Douglass Scholar” for decades, speaking at recent events such as “The Future of the African American Past,” represents the oppressive power of “White Man Lies” over the entire American historical industry, let alone the nascent field of Douglassoniana Studies.

The history and life of Dr. Douglass is too sacred to be distorted by racists, liars and used car salesman-types.

The day of reckoning is upon David Blight, John Stauffer, Lou Fields and all those who betray history for their own exploitative purposes.

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Editor’s Note:

Special thanks to Marsha Andrews from Flint, Michigan. She recently contacted me on Facebook to defend David Blight’s racism. This post is because of her inability to tell me any errors in my scholarship.

 

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Harvard Prof. John Stauffer fails to acknowledge first modern Douglass biographer Dr. Benjamin Quarles

Stauffer in BaltimoreThe legacy of Dr. Benjamin Quarles of Morgan State University, the first modern Douglass biographer, is sacred.

On Saturday, February 10, 2018 Harvard Professor John Stauffer presented at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. Before Prof. Stauffer spoke I introduced myself and made brief conversation. I shared with Prof. Stauffer my belief that Douglass has yet to benefit from the full force historical detective work of a biographer who captures the full depth of his entire local, national and international life. We exchanged our opinions of Douglass biographies.

I shared my opinion that McFeely’s work is speculative garbage. Prof. Stauffer professed his affinity for the work of Prof. Nathan I. Huggins. I shared my evaluation that Huggins’ book is a predictable regurgitation of Douglass’ own autobiographical writings, a route many “Douglass biographers” have taken across generations.

Expressing my continued dismissal of much of the scholarly writing on Douglass, Prof. Stauffer asked what I considered worth reading. Holland, Gregory, Quarles, Foner and Preston, of course, I responded.

I then asked his source for his expanding a speculative claim. We discontinued our conversation. I offered Prof. Stauffer a forewarning I’d be listening to his presentation closely.  I relayed my lack of reverence for Prof. David Blight, his former professor, and my evaluation of Blight “scholarship” as dangerous and blasphemous speculation.

I took my seat at the top of the rafters.

Prof. Stauffer initiated his presentation with a phrenology print. A studied Douglass scholar would have shared the consequential context, of which there is much, for what this specific print and the American Phrenology movement meant to Douglass.

It is a matter of the historic record what Douglass said and wrote about phrenology. Douglass broke it down with the sober focus and intense dedication of a fugitive slave-scholar.

As one of a small tribe of American bondsmen who could command the attention of the country’s ruling elites, Douglass had earned the requisite intellectual authority to speak on philosophical questions of the American character.

To speak with authority requires research, research Stauffer did not know.

More than half-way through his talk Stauffer began to discuss the historiography of Douglass studies. Speaking before a largely African-American audience in the largely African-American metropolis of Baltimore Stauffer began by offering Phil Foner as Douglass’s first modern biography.

From the back I spoke up and offered before the entire audience that Dr. Benjamin Quarles of Baltimore’s Morgan State University is the first modern Douglass biographer.

Stauffer acknowledge the fact. I opined to the confused audience that it was my job to make sure the facts shared were accurate. They tendered a meek laugh.

Keeping my comments to myself during the remainder of the professor’s presentation I was prompted to speak up during the audience Q&A.

A young woman asked Stauffer about the connections between Frederick Douglass and Howard University.

After Stauffer sustained an elongated pause I made it my place to speak, again, and shared with the questioner there would be a presentation of Frederick Douglass and Howard University later in the month. Stauffer had no response to the question. Nothing about Douglass and Howard nor the relationship between Douglass and Fanny Jackson Coppin.

After the crowd dispersed completely I spoke with Prof. Stauffer one on one.

I respectfully shared my thoughts: for someone who has made a career of speaking about the history of African American writers and historical figures his failure to mention, let alone acknowledge in specialized remarks, Dr. Benjamin Quarles, a member of the sacred Hall of Fame of Douglassonian Historians, is impious.

I told Stauffer his error to cite Quarles was inexcusable. No excuse would suffice.

In an effort to defend his lack of scholarly understanding Stauffer offered that he had cited Dr. Quarles in a previous book. I countered it did not matter because when given the platform to recognize Dr. Quarles he chose not to.

In the final analysis, the inability of Ivy League professors to do basic work to comprehend the requirements of Douglass scholarship clearly demonstrate the lack of academic rigor demanded by their respective hallowed centers of learning. The lack of scholarly standards, which allows for a repetitious cycle of stale “scholarship” to be promoted and celebrated in the place of of focused Douglass scholarship, has been perpetuated by hundreds of philanthropic, academic, government and public history associations and institutions over decades.

It is time for the lies to stop. Been time.

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