Posts Tagged New York Times

“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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William McFeely’s Douglass biography is “psychological speculation.” Straight garbage and problematic.

FD McFeely _ garbageThere is a small collective of Hall of Fame of Douglassonian biographers — Holland, Gregory, Quarles, Foner, Blassingame and Preston.

Absent from this list is the delusional William McFeely and his disturbing 1991 biography, Frederick Douglass.

As attention in Douglass swells during the Bicentennial month of his birth the record must be set straight: William McFeely’s biography of Douglass is straight garbage.

Look no further than the New York Times review from February 1991:

More than their predecessors, modern American biographers tend to probe the personal lives of their subjects by deeper research into their backgrounds, often retracing their footsteps and bringing new information to the surface. This is what Mr. McFeely does so well here as he tracks Douglass all over the country and abroad. The author, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, followed a similar course in his notable biography of Ulysses S. Grant. While offering a good deal of psychological speculation about Douglass, his interpretations seem rooted in solid evidence.

Inferences and speculations fill nearly every page, paragraph and sentence in the book.

A recipient of the Pulitzer-Prize for his 1982 biography, Grant: A Biography, and author of one of the few works on Oliver Otis Howard, an outgrowth of his dissertation, McFeely seems, at times, disinterested in his subject and at times takes a tone of disdain. Even when defending ambiguous conventional criticism of Douglass, such as Douglass distanced himself from his racial identity at turns during his lifetime, McFeely asserts a perceived authority that comes from cliched generalities not facts.

In late 2011 when I embarked on the research process for Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C. McFeely’s work was the first I picked up. I subsequently read Quarles, whose work I was familiar with from high school self-study. It was a couple months later I found, with the help of bookseller buddies, Philip Foner’s biography.

In comparison to the full biographical works of Quarles and Foner, McFeely’s work is shoddy scholarship, to be polite about it.

Focusing on Douglass’ Washington years from 1870 until his death I closely read McFeely’s speculative psychology in chapters “Uniontown,” “Cedar Hill” and others. What little actual factual information about Douglass and local Washington McFeely attempts to advance I quickly broke down, such as McFeely’s claim the New Era was printed across the old Eastern Branch Bridge, in what today is Ward 8.

I remember expressing frustration to a close friend about how a “professional historian” could get such a basic fact horribly wrong. I have since grown as a street corner historian to know many “professional historians” are not thorough-headed and more inventive than attentive.

McFeely does detail Douglass’ involvement with the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, the 1883 National Convention of Colored Men and his minister-ship to Haiti.

However, overall McFeely wastes many a words on idle speculation. For example, on the first page McFeely uses not a Douglass letter, writing or memory but his own prose to describe the flora and fauna of the Tuckahoe.

“Rabbits and deer invaded the fields from the woods, and turtles sunned on logs in the Tuckahoe, into which the brook fed. The birds, in rich confusion, made the sounds of morning; one of the great sights came at migrating time, when ducks in flocks settled on the marsh-bounded water below the mill dam. This was Frederick’s outdoors home; when he went indoors, his shelter was a cabin built with timbers cut from the woods, sheathed with the slabs of bark left when they were squared, and caulked and floored with clay from the brook.”

I close my case with a C-SPAN video of McFeely from 1999.

Introduced by our good friend and Douglassonian Frank Faragasso, McFeely devotes half of his time to discussing the current public policy issue du jour. While discussion of public policy is at times interesting and provocative, you are there to talk about Douglass, not some other stuff.

McFeely would later author a book detailing his involvement with death penalty reform efforts. Born in 1930, McFeely would now be 88 years old or thereabout.

We won’t wish him ill but his book is sickening. Its few achievements are overwhelmed by its many shortcomings and speculations.

Future Douglass biographers or Douglass monograph writers need to look towards the work of Leigh Fought, Paul & Stephen Kendrick and the Hall of Fame Douglassonian writers.

[As a note, textual analysis and textual comparison is not Douglassoniana scholarship I consider serious. This book is scholarship. This book is not. And along with David Blight, McFeely and Ira Berlin, FD Studies have been hijacked for the last 30 years by White Man Lies.]

REVIEWS of McFeely’s book:

Boston Globe (Nell Irvin Planter)

Publisher’s Weekly

New York Times

Civil War History

Los Angeles Times

Kirkus Reviews

Good Reads

Frederick Douglass: American

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“Fred Douglass Helps A Church” in Baltimore [New York Times, March 1892]

FRED DOUGLASS HELPS A CHURCH.

Baltimore, March 5. – Some weeks ago Frederick Douglass visited Baltimore in company with his son for the purpose of paying off the mortgage on the Centennial Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The church is the one in which Mr. Douglass first received his religious education, and, finding that it was in financial straits, he came to the rescue and lifted the mortgage.

In the presence of 1,300 persons the Rev. J.L. Thomas, the pastor, burned the mortgage papers. Sunday has been set aside as a day of special service. Fred Douglass will deliver an address.

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“The Picture Presentation at Howard University” attended by President Hayes and Marshal Frederick Douglass [NY Times, February 1878]

Courtesy United States Senate

History has been rather unsympathetic to Rutherford B. Hayes. I get it and understand. But in research I’ve found, in President Hayes, a man emerging that is more layered, complex, and empathetic than history has portrayed. I am not a credentialed historian, but I have approached this effort as a historian as detective gathering evidence, as any journalist would do. Some of the information I’ve found on President Hayes shines new, and in some ways, contradictory light on our 19th President.

The below New York Times article, written by Sara Jane Lippincott under the nom de plume “Grace Greenwood,” describes an evening at Howard University where emotions were thick in the air. [ED Note: This 1,500 word excerpt is part of Greenwood’s larger “Views on Passing Events” column. The night was covered a week before by the New York Times with a much smaller article.]

The remarks of President Hayes and Marshal Douglass are quoted in places, but more directly paraphrased. Even so, the remarks of Marshal Douglass are stirring.

On Thursday last I accompanied a party of friends to Howard University, where we had some very interesting exercises. The ostensible occasion was the presentation to the college of a fine large engraving of Carpenter’s picture, but really it was a sort of memorial service for Abraham Lincoln – occurring as it did, a day or two after his birthday. The President and his amiable wife were present, with Marshal Douglass, Col. T. W. Higginson, the munificent Mrs. Thompson, that lady bountiful and beautiful and a few lesser lights of politics, literature, and patriotism. The speech of Frederick Douglass did not unbeseem his old reputation for eloquence, wit, and honest good sense. His talk to the students was paternal in spirit, and on the whole, cheery in tone, though unsparing in admonition and rebuke. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” and he did lay on right lustily. It was a plain talk, with all harshness and bitterness taken out of it by the genial humor so peculiar to that orator – and by the tact which caused him to use the pronoun “we” instead of “you.”

Col. Higginson told some wonderful stories of his war experiences in the South – of the solemn rejoicing of the negroes over the emancipation proclamation, which came to them like a new gospel, let down from the New Jerusalem. The freedmen of Georgia at that time would scarcely have echoed the doubts, the “buts,” and the “ifs” of Mr. Stephens as to the wisdom and beneficence of the act which metamorphosed them from chattels into men, and if hard after-experience has caused those poor, dispersed plantation laborers, those disbanded black volunteers to grow disheartened with their “free, unhoused condition,” and feel to hanker after the flesh-pots of Egypt, if they find that to “call no man master” is, after all, a costly luxury, that to sow ballots is to reap bullets, and that “the wages of politics is death,” up here the race is as strong in faith, if not in position, and as much enamored for freedom, if not of Republicanism, as ever. They still believe liberty is a good thing – they still sing, “We are rising,” and believe it, though the yeast of the Freedmen’s Bureau has given out. When I looked around on the African portion of the audience – representatives of every shade of that unfortunate people who have seemed to us born during an eclipse of Divine favor – when I noticed them, the students especially, listening eagerly and seriously to words both of sympathy and reproof – the darkest face touched with the mysterious light of thought and aspiration, and set with a brave resolve to struggle against the love of idleness and pleasure – the real “curse of Ham” – I felt that all the honest questioning in the mind of Mr. Stephens as to the wisdom and righteousness of Mr. Lincoln’s act, was abundantly answered.

If that act was a military necessity, considered in the councils of the President it was also a need of humanity, settled and decreed n the counsels of the Almighty. If the justice was compulsory, it was Divine coercion. The noble eloquence – the very appearance of an ex-slave on the same platform with the President of the United States, was a sufficient answer to the doubts of the ex-Confederate. I remember when Marshal Douglass was a young fugitive, in deadly fear of Marshals – when if he dared to show his face in Washington, or even in New-York or Boston, he was liable to be arrested and taken back to Maryland, “With gyves upon his wrists,”

“Grace Greenwood”

I remember when hapless, and perhaps overzealous, philanthropists were imprisoned in the horrible old jail in Judiciary-square for helping such “discontented, demoralized darkies” as he out of bondage. I remember when between the Capitol and Georgetown was a slave prison; I remember how once a young slave girl escaped from that prison and took to the long bridge, hoping, perhaps, to hide herself in the woods about Arlington, but, being chased and headed off, leaped from the bridge into the Potomac and found there presently Patrick Henry’s alternative for “liberty.” About the bravest thing which our President has done since appointing Mr. Douglass Marshal of the District, and standing by his man, and one of the best things he has ever done, was to make this visit to the “Black University,” just at the time when it was being assailed. The present head of the institution, Dr. Patton, a man of rare intellect and culture and noble character, deserved this mark of respect and confidence – as I believe do all colored Professors. The words the President addressed to the students were wise, timely, and generous. As I could not wholly accept the assertion of Mr. Stephens that “among the whole Southern people there is not one who would change the state of things, resubjugate the colored man, and put him in the same state he was in before the war,” I cannot believe with President Hayes that “no one will deny the wisdom, the righteousness, and the grandeur of Abraham Lincoln’s act of emancipation,” but I honor the man for saying so, if he believed so, and for saying it so strongly. Mr. Garrison, the rugged Luther of these latter days could not have more stoutly championed the act for which we are all made to feel that the august shade of Lincoln is on trial to-day.

If the President by this visit gave happiness and encouragement to hearts not overfilled as the best with the wine of gladness, the presence of the President’s wife was received as an absolute benediction, her face as a soft light in a shadowy place. It is a most womanly and gracious presence – radiating gentleness and courtesy – a face whose character is best expressed by the word “lovely.” It was touching to note how, as Mr. Douglass pictured with master-strokes sad scenes before the war, and Col. Higginson, pathetic scenes during the war, her large dark eyes, “Sweetest eyes were ever seen,” mirrored every phase of feeling and often filled with sympathetic tears. The President’s wife may be a little quant and old-fashioned, but she is good – (perhaps, simple goodness is about as quant and old-fashioned a thing as we can see nowadays) – and when a woman has all the cardinal virtues, the coiffure is of little account – when she was the “ornament of a meek and quiet spirit” her “price is above rubies,” and diamonds are at a discount.

The University people received most gratefully the gift of Mr. Carpenter, looking with tender, not fault-finding, eyes, on the sad face of their great deliverer, and on the faces of his great associates. Since the original painting has hung in its place in the Capitol, I have been to see it, and trying to forget what all others have said, have made up my own humble estimate. I think it has merits of which the common people are perhaps the best judges. It has an air of rigid and homely fidelity, in its inception and execution, and in the portraits of that remarkable group, in all details of the picture. The fact that it was painted under the eye of Lincoln and his counselors, that the real costumes however commonplace, the customary attitudes, however ungraceful, of the men, all the actual accessories of the scene, were faithfully copied and preserved, certainly gives to it an exceptional value. The portraits are unquestionable likeness – that of Lincoln as his saddest, wannest, and weariest perhaps, but good, very good, as Lincoln portraits go; that of Seward is better; that of Stanton best. I do not like the color of some of the faces, and for that reason prefer the engraving to the painting. Mr. Carpenter was an absolute devout of Abraham Lincoln, and painted this picture in a most loving and loyal sprit. I think all that can be seen in his work, and, perhaps, it is not the worst atmosphere a picture of the kind can have. I have noticed that the painting has been much more severely criticized now that it has come to us as a gift than it was some four years ago when it was exhibited here and we understood that Government was negotiating for its purchase. I may be wrong, but I attribute much of this ungracious and harsh criticism to the change of feeling toward our sometimes foes, and a greater change of feeling toward our sometimes allies – toward both people conquered and the people emancipated by the means of that important aggressive document in the hand of that central figure of that picture – a light weapon, lightly held, but of 40-thunderbolt power. 

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