Attorneys representing Norwich resident Tamara Lanier sought to make a property rights case in a Massachusetts court Monday that she is entitled to images of her enslaved ancestors Renty and Delia, daguerreotypes that Harvard University possesses.
A Massachusetts Superior Court judge on March 1 dismissed her lawsuit, but her attorneys appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In oral arguments Monday, they contended the case shouldn’t be dismissed, while an attorney representing Harvard contended the plaintiff’s claims have to be dismissed because Lanier doesn’t have a property right.
“This court has the ability to finally free Renty and Delia from bondage,” said prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who spoke for Lanier Monday along with attorney Joshua Koskoff. “Renty and Delia were condemned in life as property of their slave master. We are beseeching this court not to condemn them in death to be the property of Harvard for all eternity.”
Crump said the request to go before a jury “is a small ask, when you think of the scope of the great wrong that has been done.”
In 1850, Louis Agassiz commissioned images of Renty and Delia to support his belief in Black inferiority. Agassiz left the images to Harvard, where he was a professor of zoology and geology.
The attorneys said Lanier did painstaking research to determine Renty was her great-great-great-grandfather. Justice Scott Kafker repeatedly pushed Koskoff to explain how the wrongs committed against Renty and Delia translate into a property right for Lanier more than 150 years later.
Koskoff said Lanier inherits those rights because Renty and Delia weren’t allowed to pass on their property in the first place. He called the photos the fruits of abuse against Renty and Delia, and said that “photographers don’t typically abuse us, hopefully, to get photographs.”
“To let Harvard retain the daguerreotypes is like catching a thief red-handed, and the court allowing the thief to legally keep possession of the property,” Crump said.
Justice Kafker asked whether the public has a First Amendment interest in the photos, to which Koskoff replied, “It depends who you ask. I think if you asked Renty and Delia, they would say: We didn’t want to be part of the public’s education.”
Justice Elspeth Cypher said there are systems in place for repatriating items to Native Americans, but Congress doesn’t have something in place like that for African-Americans and their descendants.
“There are probably good reasons to have those kinds of regulatory schemes, not just limited to Native Americans,” replied Anton Metlitsky, the Harvard attorney, “but they’re so sort of inherently legislative, and the judicial tools are so blunt; there’s either a property right or there isn’t.”
Justice Kafker noted there are exceptions to the rule that because you’re the photographer you get to keep the picture, saying, “If you kidnap somebody and take half-naked pictures of them, you don’t get to keep the pictures.”
Metlitsky said the claims here are very different and he disagrees that Harvard is a wrongdoer.
Koskoff said he was curious about what Harvard’s claim is to the photos, a request Justice Kafker reiterated. But Metlitsky said the question at this stage isn’t who has the right to the photo, but whether the plaintiff does.
Justice Kafker commented, “Their right is not so obvious but neither is yours, based on these really terrible circumstances of the origin of the daguerreotype.”
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