Posts Tagged photos

“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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Video: How Frederick Douglass Used Photography to Talk About Race (WGBH Forum, 2016)

Frederick Douglass was in love with photography. From his earliest known photograph in 1841 until his passing in 1895, he sat for his portrait whenever he could and became the most photographed American of the nineteenth century; more photographed than President Abraham Lincoln. In this first major exhibition of Douglass photographs, we offer a visually stunning re-introduction to America’s first black celebrity — immediately recognizable in his own lifetime by millions.

Scholars John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd are the co-curators of the exhibit [Picturing Frederick Douglass] (, based upon their acclaimed book about the famed abolitionist’s photographs. They join Dr. Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, to discuss the impact of the wide distribution of images of Douglass.

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Eric Zhang: The Unofficial-Official Douglass Bicentennial Photographer

Eric Z Hang at Highland Beach

Eric Zhang has taken thousands of photos of the Douglass Bicentennial. We thank him.

Over the past year or more there has been a ubiquitous and steadfast presence at nearly every Douglass-related and Civil War-related event I’ve attended. You have probably seen him and noticed him snapping away hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs.

Who is he?

Eric Zhang is local history enthusiast and the Unofficial-Official Photographer of all Douglass Bicentennial-related events in and around the Washington metropolitan area.

This weekend there was a small event at the Highland Beach community on the Chesapeake Bay and you know who was there taking photographs; none other than Eric.

We wanted to thank Eric for his continued commitment, interest and documentation of the Douglass Bicentennial.


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David Blight’s claim, “There is no family photograph.” is misleading and manipulative. (Part 5)

IMG_5849At an address delivered in February at the Maryland Historical Society Prof. David Blight pontificated, speculated and invented misleading facts about Frederick Douglass.

Long on flowery and speculative prose while short on original research, Prof. Blight said during the latter years of Douglass’ life he was a “patriarch” who financially and emotionally supported a large family.

While his interpretation is his to advance, it is not his place to make up alternative and error-laden history and invent facts that are not facts. (His former student Prof. Stauffer has the same proclivity to lie.)

During his uninspiring talk Blight offered, “Douglass’ extended family was not a happy family. There is no family photograph.”

Although there may be no KNOWN photos taking during Douglass / Bailey family reunions to survive today or yet to be discovered by researchers, to declare definitively the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence is misleading and inaccurate.

By a short count there are at least four photos (some parts of series) of Frederick Douglass with a family member and there are two photos of his immediate sons sitting with each other and/or their wife.

David Blight has shown himself to distort, speculate and lie about his own research as well as the work of committed Douglass researchers. Blight’s claim there is “no family photograph” is just one of his many lies.

  • In 1872 the Douglasses Rochester home was lost to a fire. Could there have been family photos that were lost? It is possible and worth mentioning.
Fred & Joseph Douglass

Library of Congress

  • There are a series of photos of Douglass and his grandson, Joseph Douglass, a renowned violinist whose classical education was largely supported by his grandfather.

Image result for helen pitts eva pitts

  • There is a photo of Douglass seated with his second wife, Helen, and his sister-in-law Eva Pitts, an educator. There is also a photo of Helen and Frederick on their honeymoon with a backdrop of Niagara Falls.
L-R_Charles Douglass, Joseph Douglas, Lewis Douglass. Courtesy LOC

L-R: Charles Douglass, Joseph Douglas, Lewis Douglass. Courtesy LOC.

  • There is a photo of an older Lewis and Charles with Joseph Douglass. (Fred, Jr. passed in 1892.)
Frederick Douglass in front of his A Street NE home

Credit: National Park Service (FRDO 11001)

  • There is at least one photo of Frederick Douglass and members of his family outside the first Washington home on A Street NE.

Fred & Annie _ 1853

  • A recently discovered photo is believed to be Frederick Douglass with his youngest daughter, Annie, before her untimely death in 1860.

Image result for amelia loguen

  • A photo of Lewis Douglass, the eldest Douglass son, and his wife Helen Amelia Loguen Douglass.



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Photo Archive: Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall on Howard University Campus



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“Colored American,” Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

The Colored American began publishing in 1893 under the ownership of Edward Elder Cooper, who had distinguished himself as the founder of the Indianapolis Freeman, the first illustrated African American newspaper. The Colored American operated its presses at 459 C Street in Washington’s northwest quadrant. The weekly publication promoted itself as a national Negro newspaper and it carried lengthy feature stories on the achievements of African Americans across the country. Publisher Cooper relied on contributions from such prominent black journalists such as John E. Bruce and Richard W. Thompson to sustain the national scope of his paper, which readers could obtain for a $2.00 annual subscription.

The Colored American included a regular column called “City Paragraphs” that highlighted events in the nation’s capital and routinely featured articles on religion, politics, education, military affairs, and black fraternal organizations. The paper distinguished itself by its use of original reporting rather than relying on boiler-plate, filler material taken from other publications. Like other papers, however, it included advertising, much of it geared to black consumers.

The paper ran editorials and political cartoons that championed improved social conditions in the black community and expanded rights for African Americans. Although it held a reputation for political independence, the Colored American was actually staunchly Republican. Cooper allied himself and his paper with Booker T. Washington, and the publisher looked to the famous black educator for financial assistance. Another financial backer was lecturer and activist Mary Church Terrell, a noted African American civil rights advocate who wrote a column for the paper titled “The Women’s World,” under the pseudonym Euphemia Kirk.

Unfortunately for the Colored American, Cooper proved to be a poor businessman and, because of some unorthodox business practices and extensive debts to creditors, financial problems plagued the paper. It ceased publication in November 1904. – Library of Congress, Chronicling America


Library of Congress Prints & Photographs; Call Number: LOT 11303

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Matthew Parker sneak peak; collage of vintage & contemporary image of Frederick Douglass’ library at Cedar Hill

Courtesy of Matthew Parker,

You might know local photographer Matthew Parker from the Downtown Holiday Market, Eastern Market, the just closed Artomatic, or from seeing him riding around town in his Art Trike. No matter where you’ve seen Parker before you’ll soon catch him contributing to Frederick Douglass’ Washington: The Lion Of Anacostia.

Here’s a sample photo of Parker’s that blends a historic and well-known image of Frederick Douglass in his library with a contemporary photo of one the Lion’s liars.

Much thanks and appreciation to the folks at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site for their continued help and support.

…remember that it’s been recently confirmed by historians Zoe Trodd and  Celeste-Marie Bernier that Douglass is the most photographed person of the 19th century!

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I can accept it: Frederick Douglass most photographed American of the 19th century

Photo by John Muller & William Alston-El. Copyright strictly enforced online and offline.

Check out the story here from the New Haven Register that features the important research of Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier.

“The existing photographic record of Douglass begins with an 1841 daguerreotype image, taken just a few years after Douglass escaped to freedom from slavery. He was 23. The final photo of Douglass came on his deathbed, in 1895.

In between were images — many of them iconic — that presented an aura of dignity, determination and gravitas.”

In other Douglass items one story says the Frederick Douglass statue at One Judiciary Square (441 4th St. NW) will not be moving to Statuary Hall while another story says it could happen.

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