Harvard University should be sued over ‘horrific’ slave photos, court rules

Part of the Harvard University campus.

Maddie Meyer, Gett Images

Massachusetts’ highest court on Thursday ruled that Harvard University could be charged with assaulting a descendant of slaves who were forced to be photographed for an 1850 study by a professor trying to prove the inferiority of black people.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that Harvard’s “horrific, historic role” in creating the images meant it had a duty to carefully respond to Tamara Lanier’s requests for information about them, which it said the university had not done. .

But the court said the Ivy League school was not required to hand over the photos to Lanier, concluding that despite the “outrageous” circumstances, she had no legitimate ownership interest in the photos.

The decision partially revives a lawsuit the Connecticut woman filed in 2019. Josh Koskoff, Lanier’s attorney, called the ruling a “historic victory” in a statement.

Harvard, Massachusetts-based Harvard said it was reviewing the decision.

The footage shows Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, slaves on a South Carolina plantation who were forced to strip naked for photos taken for a racist study by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz.

Judge Scott Kafker wrote that Harvard rejected Lanier’s claims of a “cavalier” ancestral link and ignored her requests for information about the use of the images, including when the school used Renty’s image on a book cover.

Kafker said Harvard’s conduct meant a jury could reasonably determine that it caused Lanier reckless emotional distress through his “extreme and excessive conduct.”

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