Woman descended from slaves can sue Harvard over historical photos, court rules

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A woman who is allegedly descended from slaves shown in historical photos owned by Harvard University can sue the prestigious school for emotional distress, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled.

The state’s top court on Thursday partly vacated a previous ruling from the state’s Superior Court, a lower court, which had dismissed Tamara Lanier’s complaint against Harvard and said that she was not entitled to relief.

Louis Agassiz, a biology professor at the university in the 1850s, arranged to have daguerreotype photographs made of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia who were enslaved at a plantation in South Carolina.

Taylor was ordered to completely disrobe while Delia was stripped naked to her waist as the photographer took four photos of them. The images were then used by Agassiz in an academic publication to promote the racist theory of polygenism used to support slavery.

Lanier identified herself as a descendant of Renty and Delia Taylor to Harvard officials and requested information about the university’s past and intended use of the photographs.

Her lawyers have said the university dismissed her claims of descent and ignored her request to provide information about the use of the images, continuing to publish them without informing her.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court said in its ruling Thursday that the alleged facts of the case, taken as true, “plausibly support claims for negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress.”

“In sum, despite its duty of care to her, Harvard cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims and disregarded her requests, despite its own representations that it would keep her informed of further developments,” the ruling reads.

The Supreme Judicial Court sent the case back to the Superior Court to allow Lanier to amend her complaint regarding allegations of reckless affliction of emotional distress.

The court found that Lanier’s claims that the school’s treatment of her caused her to suffer emotional distress including “insomnia and nausea” were sufficient to “raise a right to relief.”

“The fact that this distress has, as alleged, been manifested in symptoms such as nausea and insomnia is enough to plausibly suggest that Lanier has suffered severe distress,” the ruling reads.

“Even long after the deaths of Renty and Delia Taylor, the degrading and dehumanizing daguerreotypes that Agassiz arranged to have made of them retained their capacity to wound.”

However, the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the Superior Court’s ruling that the photographs were the property of the photographer who took them and not the subjects of the images themselves and so could not be forfeited or transferred to the state or Lanier.

The court’s majority opinion also struck down comments from Associate Justice Elspeth Cypher in a separate concurring opinion proposing creating a means for allowing descendants of slaves to obtain possession of artifacts that resulted from the enslavement of their ancestors.

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