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Descendant of enslaved people can sue Harvard University over photos of half-naked ancestors, state supreme court rules

<i>Maddie Meyer/Getty Images</i><br/>Massachusetts' highest court has ruled that a woman claiming to be the descendant of enslaved people can proceed with some of the claims in her lawsuit against Harvard University.
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Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Massachusetts' highest court has ruled that a woman claiming to be the descendant of enslaved people can proceed with some of the claims in her lawsuit against Harvard University.

Justin Gamble, CNN

Massachusetts’ highest court has ruled that a woman claiming to be the descendant of enslaved people can proceed with some of the claims in her lawsuit against Harvard University.

The June 23 ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allows Tamara Lanier to seek damages from Harvard for mistreating her when using photographs of her ancestors — images known as daguerreotypes.

Lanier alleges that a Harvard professor commissioned the photographs of her ancestors without their consent and without compensating them, and then attempted to use the photos to allege the “biological inferiority” of Black people, according to her complaint.

The court’s decision allows Harvard to retain possession of the images, but also allows Lanier to pursue claims for infliction of emotional distress against the university in state courts.

The images of Lanier’s ancestors, Renty and his daughter Delia, were taken in South Carolina when they were enslaved in the 1800’s, according to Lanier’s complaint. Before the photos were taken, Lanier’s complaint states, one of her enslaved ancestors was forced to disrobe and another was stripped naked to the waist.

The court concluded that the university owed the woman a duty to take reasonable care in responding to her after she claimed the daguerreotypes depicted her ancestors and provided documentation, in part because of “Harvard’s complicity in the horrific actions surrounding the creation of the daguerreotypes.”

The ruling allows Lanier to proceed with her case alleging that the university breached that duty by mistreating her when it “cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims” to the depicted slaves publicly, failed to contact her when it used the images, and rebuffed her attempts to share her ancestor’s story.

Lanier said while she is pleased with the ruling that will allow her to pursue damages against Harvard, she feels the ruling didn’t go far enough. “I want the daguerreotypes,” Lanier told CNN, adding that she feels Harvard should not be “allowed to profit” from the use of the daguerreotypes.

One of the images, which are believed to be some of the earliest known pictures of enslaved people, was used by the Harvard University Press as a cover photo for the book “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery” in 2017.

CNN has reached out to Harvard for their reaction to the court’s decision but has not heard back. But university spokesperson Rachael Dane told NBC News the school is reviewing the decision.

“Harvard has and will continue to grapple with its historic connection to slavery and views this inquiry as part of its core academic mission,” and that the university “… strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects from around the globe within its museum and library collections,” Dane told NBC.

The images were commissioned by controversial Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz in the 1850s for use in his research, according to Lanier’s complaint. Lanier filed suit in 2019 asking the university to turn over the images of her ancestors and to pay unspecified damages. Last year, a Massachusetts Superior Court ruled Lanier did not have a property interest in the images and that ruling was appealed to the state supreme court.

Attorneys for Lanier are pleased with the state supreme court’s decision, they said. “It was a win for her and her family, but more importantly, it was a win for Black people in America because I believe this opinion will be used in cases, reparations cases, all over America,” Lanier’s attorney and civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump said.

But Crump added that as long as Harvard possesses the daguerreotypes, they are inflicting emotional distress on Tamara Lanier and her family. Josh Koskoff, another Lanier attorney, told CNN he hopes the case between his client and Harvard can be resolved quickly, but understands it still could be a long road ahead in the courts.

“Until those daguerreotypes are returned to the family by these criminal possessors of the daguerreotypes, there will be no justice for the Lanier family,” Koskoff said.

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