A Connecticut woman who says she’s descended from slaves who are portrayed in widely published, historical photos owned by Harvard University can sue the school for emotional distress, Massachusetts’ highest court ruled Thursday.
The state’s Supreme Judicial Court partly vacated a lower court ruling that dismissed a complaint from Tamara Lanier over photos she says depict her enslaved ancestors. The images are considered some of the earliest that show enslaved people in the U.S.
The court concluded the Norwich resident and her family can plausibly make a case for suffering “negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress” from Harvard and remanded that part of their claim to the state Superior Court.
The judges said the university failed to contact Lanier when it used one of the images on a book cover and prominently featured it in materials for a campus conference — even after she’d reached out about her ancestral ties.
“In sum, despite its duty of care to her, Harvard cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims and disregarded her requests, despite its own representations that it would keep her informed of further developments,” the ruling states.
But the high court upheld the lower court’s ruling that the photos are the property of the photographer who took them and not the subject themselves.
“A descendant of someone whose likeness is reproduced in a daguerreotype would not therefore inherit any property right to that daguerreotype,” the high court wrote in its ruling.
Lanier’s attorney said Thursday’s ruling was a “historic win” that marks one of the first times a court has ruled that descendants of enslaved people can seek accountability for what their ancestors endured.
“Harvard is not the rightful owner of these photos and should not profit from them,” Josh Koskoff said in a statement. “As Tamara Lanier and her family have said for years, it is time for Harvard to let Renty and Delia come home.”
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane said the university is reviewing the decision. She also stressed the original daguerreotypes are in archival storage and not on display, nor have they been lent out to other museums for more than 15 years, because of their fragility.
“Harvard has and will continue to grapple with its historic connection to slavery and views this inquiry as part of its core academic mission,” she said in a statement. “Harvard also strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects from around the globe within its museum and library collections.”
In April, Harvard released a report and pledged to spend $100 million to study and atone for its extensive ties to slavery, including plans to identify and support the descendants of enslaved people who labored at the Ivy League campus.
Lanier’s suit, which was filed in 2019, deals with a series of 1850 daguerreotypes depicting a South Carolina man identified as Renty Taylor and his daughter, Delia Taylor.
Both were posed shirtless and photographed from several angles in images commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the U.S.
In her lawsuit, Lanier argued that the Taylors were her ancestors and that the photos were taken against their will. She demanded the photos from Harvard, saying the school had exploited the portraits for profit.