A Connecticut woman who sued Harvard University over ownership of pictures of her enslaved ancestors will have her day in court after a judge previously dismissed her case.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Nov. 1 in Tamara Lanier’s appeal of the lower court’s ruling on her 2019 lawsuit against the Ivy League university, Hyperallergic.com reports.
Lanier’s lawsuit centers on photos taken in 1850 that show a South Carolina slave named Renty, who was Lanier’s great-great-great-grandfather, and his daughter Delia — 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 Blacks.
In her lawsuit, Lanier argued that her ancestors' images, which show them topless and from various angles, were taken against their will. What’s more, she accused Harvard of exploiting the pictures for profit after an image of Renty appeared on a book cover.
Her lawsuit accused Harvard of "wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation" of the images. But the university has argued that it has a property interest in the photos.
In March, a Middlesex County Superior Court judge sided with Harvard.
"Fully acknowledging the continuing impact slavery has had in the United States, the law as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph's origins may be," Justice Camille Sarrouf wrote, according to CNN.
Sarrouf added that, as a common law principle, photograph subjects have no rights to negatives or photographs from the negatives of their image, directing Lanier to seek redress from the appeals courts or the state legislature.
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is on Lanier's legal team, has pointed out the injustice of the ruling. “When will Harvard University finally free Renty?” Crump asked while appearing on the Democracy Now! news hour.