The plaintiff alleges that Harvard has exploited “brutal” images of slaves–slaves she claims she is descended from.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has found that a Connecticut woman descended from slaves can continue her lawsuit against Harvard.
According to CBS News, Tamara Lanier—who claims to be related to a group of slaves portrayed in a widely published series of photographs—accuses Harvard of inflicting “emotional distress” by publishing and publicizing the “brutal” images.
CBS News notes that the pictures of Lanier’s ancestors are among the earliest photographs depicting enslaved people in the United States.
In its decision, the Supreme Judicial Court partially vacated a lower court’s ruling, with the justices concluding that Lanier could plausibly make a compelling case for “negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress.”
However, the justices did reject part of Lanier’s claim, stating that the photographs—owned by Harvard—shall remain the property of the university.
“A descendent of someone whose likeness is reproduced in a daguerreotype would not therefore inherit any property right to that daguerreotype,” the court said.
An attorney for Lanier told CBS News that the ruling is a “historic win,” representing one of the first times that a descendent of slaves can seek accountability for their ancestors’ suffering.
“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,” attorneys Ben Crump and Josh Koskoff said in a statement. “It is with great pride that we continue this legal and moral battle for justice against Harvard, as we look to repair the damage and degradation that they have caused Tamara Lanier, her ancestors, and all other people of color exploited by their institution.”
A spokesperson for Harvard said they are reviewing the decision.
Spokeswoman Rachael Dane stressed that the daguerreotypes are in archival storage, are not on display, and have not been lent out to other museums in over 15 years because of their fragility.
“Harvard has and will continue to grapple with its historic connection to slavery and views this inquiry as part of its core academic mission,” Dane said in a statement. “Harvard also strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects from around the globe within its museum and library collections.”
In her lawsuit, Lanier had argued that the persons depicted in the photographs are her ancestors and, as slaves, were unable to offer consent.
Lanier alleges that Harvard has exploited the “brutal” images of slavery for its own profit.