By Ariel Scotti / March 21, 2019

Harvard Sued by Descendant of Slave for Profiting From Photos

Many of the most prestigious schools in the U.S. have deep ties to slavery.

Harvard banners hang outside Memorial Church on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009. (Michael Fein/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Harvard banners hang outside Memorial Church on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009. (Michael Fein/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Harvard University has been profiting from one of the earliest known photographs of an enslaved man, despite requests by his descendants to stop doing so, the man’s great-great-great-granddaughter claimed in a lawsuit aimed at the school.

The suit is the latest example of American higher education being forced to grapple with historic links to slavery, Politico reported. Many of the country’s most prestigious schools have deep, embarrassing ties to slavery.

The suit centers on daguerreotype photos — the first publicly available photographic process that employed an iodine-sensitized silvered plate — of an enslaved man commissioned by a Harvard professor in 1850. The legal action alleges that the images were used by the teacher to “push junk science popular at the time that Africans and African-Americans were inferior to whites.”

The man’s descendant, Tamara Lanier, alleges that Harvard has ignored her requests to stop licensing the pictures for the university’s profit and claims that Harvard has never sufficiently repudiated the professor’s work, which was used to justify slavery before the Civil War and segregation after.

“Despite knowing that the images were taken under the most extreme form of duress and were thus the spoils of theft, Harvard claimed the daguerreotypes as property within its exclusive control,” the lawsuit says. “Today, Harvard insists that anyone who wishes to lay eyes on the daguerreotypes first sign a contract promising not to use any of the images without permission. Those who wish to use reproductions of the images can, with Harvard’s permission, pay a hefty ‘licensing’ fee.”

Lanier wants the photos turned over to her family and is seeking damages from the university. Her lawyer, Ben Crump, is a civil rights attorney who also represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

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