All about Renty, the African slave whose nude, racist images became the subject of a lawsuit against Harvard

Mildred Europa Taylor June 28, 2022
Tamara Lanier holds an 1850 photograph of a South Carolina enslaved person named Renty, who Lanier said is her family's patriarch, on July 17, 2018, at her home in Norwich, Conn. (John Shishmanian/AP)

In 2019, Connecticut woman Tamara Lanier sued Harvard University for allegedly making money out of early images of African slaves who she claims are her ancestors. Lanier filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts claiming that the images, which were taken in 1850, depict an African man called Renty, who was her great-great-great-grandfather, and his daughter Delia.

In her suit, she said Harvard has refused to respond to her requests for information on the images and how Harvard wants to use them, causing her emotional distress. She also demanded the images, adding that since 2011, she has been presenting Harvard with information that she is a descendant of Renty but the school has been ignoring her.

A lower court threw out her lawsuit but on Thursday, Massachusetts’ highest court partially vacated that decision, ruling that Lanier can sue the Ivy League university for emotional distress. But the court said Lanier cannot gain title to the images as they are the property of the photographer who took them.

For years, Lanier had been researching and having discussions with genealogical experts who validated her ancestry. She began studying her family’s ancestry and stories about Renty after her mother’s death in 2010.

She said Renty was probably kidnapped from the Congo River basin and was living on a cotton plantation in Columbia, South Carolina, that was owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor when his images were taken against his will. Lanier said a Harvard professor had used the images of Renty and his daughter Delia to support racist scientific theories of their inferiority, USA Today reported.

In the 2019 suit, Lanier said the Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz, went to the South in 1850 to “prove” Black people are inferior and to “justify their subjugation, exploitation, and segregation.”

The photos were taken that year after he had ordered Renty and Delia to take off their clothes. Agassiz, to prove his theory that African-descended people were inferior, had been searching for enslaved Black people who were born in Africa. That was rare to find in the 1850s. The United States had banned the importation of Africans in 1807, so in the 1850s, most Black slaves around had been born in the country, with many of them having some European ancestry, according to The Washington Post.

Agassiz later got to know about Renty, an enslaved man in South Carolina who was being called “the Black African”. He later took Renty and his daughter Delia to a studio where he forced them to disrobe and pose in the nude. The daguerreotypes produced (an early form of photography) to push his racist theories have been with Harvard since then.

In the 2019 lawsuit, Lanier accused the university of “wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of the images,” saying that Harvard refused to stop licensing the images even when she had requested it to. Citing several cases in which Harvard profited from the images, Lanier said Renty’s image is on the cover of a 2017 book, “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery,” published by Harvard’s Peabody Museum and sold online by Harvard for $40.

The image was also displayed on the program for a 2017 conference that Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advance Study hosted on the school’s relationship with slavery, the USA Today reported. Lawyers for Lanier argued that Harvard ensures that people sign a contract in order to view the photos and pay a licensing fee to the university to reproduce the images.

Lanier, in her lawsuit, also cited the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. She claimed that the university continued profiting from slavery even after it was abolished through its use of the photos.

“These images were taken under duress and Harvard has no right to keep them, let alone profit from them,” Michael Koskoff, a lawyer for Lanier, told USA Today. The suit, filed in Middlesex County Superior Court, added that Renty and Delia’s images, “like their bodies before, remain subject to control and appropriation by the powerful, and their familial identities are denied to them.”

Lanier does not know the exact details about how Renty arrived in America but she believes that he first came to New Orleans in a Spanish slave ship from Africa in the late 1700s at around 15. He might have later come to South Carolina through the slave market, she said.

In the 1800s, he was purchased by Col. Thomas Taylor, the father of Benjamin Taylor. Then known as “Papa Renty”, he became known as Renty Taylor after the Civil War. He learned how to read at a time it was illegal and taught others how to read, too. He became a respected leader within the slave community. It is not known when he died.

Lanier’s attorneys said on Thursday that they will now go on to sue Harvard and try to “repair the damage and degradation that they have caused Tamara Lanier, her ancestors, and all other people of color exploited by [Harvard].”

Harvard has said that it is reviewing the court’s decision.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 29, 2022


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