Harvard Undergrad Council condemns university's possession of slave images

Harvard’s Undergraduate Council is calling out the university for "profiting" off slavery images.

This is part of an ongoing lawsuit from 2019 in which a woman claims the images are her family members and belong to her, not the university.

The Harvard University Undergraduate Student Council reached a unanimous agreement, passing a resolution stating that the university should not be allowed to possess images of slaves.

According to The Crimsonthe images are told to be some of the oldest images portraying American slaves. The images are said to depict the great-great-great grandfather of Tamara Lanier, Renty, and his daughter, Delia. The images are currently in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The Crimson noted that in 2019, Lanier sued Harvard to obtain the photos.

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The council came to the conclusion that the images should not be in Harvard’s possession, but should belong to the family member. 

The council said in its legislation that “it is not your place, nor is it the place of the University or affiliated institutions, to claim ownership under the law for Renty and Delia.” Undergraduate council treasurer Noah Harris accused the university of “profiting” off of the photos.

“We felt that it was our obligation to speak up about the photos that Harvard is profiting off of, of Renty and his daughter Delia,” Harris told The Crimson.

However, in an April 2019 interview with The Crimson, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said that the university does not profit from the images of Renty and his daughter, and stated that the university charges a “nominal fee” for those who want reproductions of the image.

The council discussed the images during its first meeting due to the ongoing lawsuit and controversy facing the university surrounding them.

The initial lawsuit is between Harvard University and the plaintiff, Lainer, who alleges the university is in illegal possession of the photos because those depicted are who Lainer believes to be her family members. Lainer argues that because Renty and Delia were slaves they could not agree to have their photo taken and that Harvard should give her the images, surrender any money made from the photos, and pay her damages.

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Part of Lainer’s complaint argues that “responsibility for that crime lies squarely with Harvard, which elevated [former Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz] to the highest echelons of academia and steadfastly supported him as he promoted and legitimized the poisonous myth of white superiority.” Agassiz reported commissioned the photos in the 1800s.

The Harvard Coalition to Free Renty started a petition addressed to the Office of the President, which demands that Harvard “Let them go home, and begin to set a new standard for Harvard that all students, faculty and the community can respect.”

Campus Reform reached out to Harvard University, but has not received a response.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Jess__Custodio