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Mass. Supreme Court Allows Slave Descendant To Sue Harvard For Emotional Distress

The university published ‘dehumanizing’ photos of two slaves that a white supremacist Harvard professor commissioned in 1850 for his research.

Massachusetts’ highest court delivered a partial victory Thursday (June 23) to a Connecticut woman who sued Harvard University over its ownership of photographs that she said depicts her enslaved ancestors.

The Associated Press reports that the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Tamara Lanier may sue the Ivy League university for emotional distress over the published photos and remanded that part of her claim to the state Superior Court.

The high court, however, affirmed the lower court’s rejection of Lanier’s ownership claim to the images. Still, her legal team found reasons to applaud the outcome.

“We are gratified by the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Tamara Lanier’s case against Harvard University for the horrible exploitation of her Black ancestors, as this ruling will give Ms. Lanier her day in court to advocate for the memory of Renty,” The Harvard Crimson quoted a joint statement from Lanier and her attorneys, Benjamin L. Crump and Joshua D. Koskoff.

Lanier’s lawsuit centers on photos taken in 1850 that depict a South Carolina slave named Renty, who was Lanier’s great-great-great-grandfather, and his daughter Delia. These photos are believed to be among the earliest images of enslaved Black Americans.

Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz commissioned the photos as part of his academic work to support his white supremacist theories about Black people.

RELATED: State Supreme Court Arguments Set To Begin Over Who Owns Images Of Woman’s Enslaved Ancestors

In its ruling, the justices said Harvard failed to contact Lanier when it used one of the images on a book cover and on conference materials.

“Harvard was put on notice that she would reasonably be greatly concerned about how the images — created through coercion and depicting her ancestors in a degrading, dehumanizing light — would be used, displayed, and disseminated,” the ruling said.

“Because, as alleged, Harvard did just the opposite, its actions plausibly rose to the level of extreme and outrageous conduct.”

Ownership of the images belongs to the photographer–not the subject, the justices noted.

They wrote, “A descendant of someone whose likeness is reproduced in a daguerreotype would not therefore inherit any property right to that daguerreotype.”

Koskoff rejected that part of the ruling.

“Harvard is not the rightful owner of these photos and should not profit from them,” he stated. “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 and has no immediate comment, The Crimson reported.

The justices handed down their ruling as Harvard reckons with its historic ties to slavery. In April, the university released a report titled  “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery” that acknowledges its involvement in the slave trade and white supremacy. University officials have pledged $100 million to redress the injustices.

RELATED: Harvard University Creates Fund To Redress Its Historical Ties To Slavery

From its founding in 1636 to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, Harvard faculty, staff and leaders enslaved more than 70 individuals, according to the findings of a committee tasked with uncovering the history. Some of the slaves lived and worked on campus where they served the university’s presidents, professors and students. Harvard also profited financially from the slave economy of the U.S. South and the Caribbean through its connections to wealthy donors.

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