Tamara Lanier’s fight for photographs of her Harvard slave ancestors


Last year, we published a dossier of statements from prominent scholars supporting Tamara Lanier’s fight to recover the daguerreotypes of her ancestors from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. Lanier, who lives in Norwich, Connecticut, had long heard stories through his family of an ancestor named Papa Renty, a learned man from Africa who was enslaved and brought to the United States in inhumane conditions. These stories about Renty were important to his family and to the memory of their heritage that they have kept alive.

Then one day, Lanier discovered that there were photographs of his relative, and they were deposited at Harvard University because of a racist 19th century scholar named Louis Agassiz. Agassiz had tasked them with ‘proving’ his white supremacist ideas about race and they were in a trunk at the Peabody Museum until a researcher resurfaced them in the 1970s.

In this podcast, I talk about Lanier about the ongoing struggle to reclaim his family legacy by asking Harvard to accept his right to ownership of the images. She recounts a fascinating visit to the home of the descendants of the Taylor family, slavers who claimed Lanier’s ancestry as property, and some startling discoveries she made along the way.

This is a must-watch episode, and I highly recommend reading Valentina Di Liscia’s excellent article, which was part of our special feature, which summarizes the story of the court case and the wider fight against “Free Renty”.

Lanier has also allowed us to reproduce some of the photographs she took at the Taylor family home, which includes various pieces of furniture created by her ancestors when they were enslaved.

At left, Tamara Lanier (center) with the Taylors in their home and surrounded by furniture made by Lanier’s slave ancestors, top right, a detail of the chair and table made by Tamara Lanier’s ancestors, and lower right, a detail of the credenza created by one of Tamara Lanier’s slave ancestors (photograph courtesy of Tamara Lanier and used with permission)

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