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Tamara Lanier listens as her lawyer speaks to the media about a lawsuit accusing Harvard University of the monetization of photographic images of her great-great-great grandfather, an enslaved African man named Renty, and his daughter Delia, outside the Harvard Club in New York on March 20, Tamara Lanier left of Norwich, Conn. Fortune at the Capitol in Hartford, Conn. Lanier, of Norwich, Conn. The late Mattye Thompson Lanier enjoyed sharing her family's oral history dating back to her enslaved ancestors.
When Tamara Lanier visited Dr. Edmund Rhett Taylor, a descendant of Benjamin Taylor, she also met his wife, Mary, and got to see furniture crafted by enslaved people. In , a Columbia photographer took a series of daguerreotypes of naked enslaved people. More than century later, the disturbing images turned up in an attic of Harvard University. Condon, a young editorial assistant at the school's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, had been foraging around a dusty corner of storage with two colleagues that day. Amid the clutter of items little used in displays, she'd stopped at a wooden cabinet.
Someone had pushed it under an eave. Inside, she noticed a group of flat leather cases, each a little bigger than a deck of cards. She grasped a case and unlocked its tiny latch. With that simple flip, they released a genie of history, a long-lost story of humanity and inhumanity that stretched from the esteemed halls of Harvard to the dirt and bolls of South Carolina's cotton plantations. Our public service and investigative reporting is among the most important work we do. Each of the 15 identical cases contained a daguerreotype, an early form of photography from the mids. Beneath glass and faux-gold frames, a lone Black person stared into the camera, stony-faced and resolute, except one young woman whose eyes appeared blurred with tears.
All of the people, photographed portrait-style and beautifully lit, were partially or entirely naked. Most were middle-aged or older men. Two were women who sat in fluffy antebellum dresses, hands clasped in their laps, dress tops pulled down to fully expose their breasts. In other images, men stood fully nude, barefoot on a handsome rug in front of a wooden stool.
Each was photographed facing front, then from the side, then from behind. Nothing in the drawer explained what they'd discovered. Only small, handwritten labels affixed to each offered clues:. The discovery sent Reichlin and others on a quest to solve the disturbing mystery. It continues today, 45 years later. But Harvard historians weren't the only ones hunting for clues.
In , a woman named Tamara Lanier sued the university for possession of the daguerreotypes. Based on her own research, she claimed to be a descendant of two people captured in them. So many years after slavery's end, not unlike in the aftermath of wars or colonization, the question remains: Who has rights to the plunder of the most egregious wrongs?
The story began, in many ways, in when a famous Swiss scientist named Louis Agassiz immigrated to the United States. He'd been invited to give a series of lectures in Boston, and to the elation of many, had accepted. The year-old was known for his groundbreaking method of classifying animals. Shortly after arriving in Boston, Agassiz decided to take a quick jaunt to Philadelphia to meet another lover of classifications. Samuel Morton, a physician and craniologist there, had amassed perhaps the world's largest collection of skulls. The men hit it off.
During his visit, Agassiz admired the vast collection; Morton explained some of his ideas. Saying his measurements of human skulls proved Caucasians had the largest cranial capacity, Morton surmised this must prove they were the most intelligent race.
He also claimed to have measured the smallest cranial capacity in Africans, which he argued meant they had the lowest intelligence. Then he added something else: The races must, therefore, have derived from different origins — not a common one. The idea, called polygenesis, intrigued Agassiz. A European, he'd never been immersed in American racism or its vast institution of slavery. When he arrived, he noticed the hotel's domestic staff were Black. So were those who served his meal. He was repulsed by them. Nonetheless, it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.
When he returned to work in Boston, he continued lecturing and researching, ed elite social circles and became increasingly influential. The windfall allowed the university to create a scientific school — with Agassiz soon at its helm. He and many other scientists were focused on explaining the natural world through creationism. A decade remained before Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" would introduce the theory that populations evolve over time through natural selection. When Agassiz uttered the idea, Boston clergy attacked him.
The Bible describes one Adam and Eve who gave rise to all people. Polygenesis rang sacrilegious. In response, to preserve his academic and social stations, Agassiz modulated what he said — until That spring, he headed south to Charleston, land of plantation slavery. Agassiz arrived in March, when the weather warmed and azaleas began to bloom. But he arrived to a tempest.
Scientists from around the country flocked to Charleston for the third meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The main topic: the unity or diversity of species. The meeting convened as slavery increasingly divided the nation. In just two weeks, John C. Calhoun's death would renew Southern fidelity to him and his view of slavery as a "positive good. Clouds of war clustered on the horizon. He befriended prominent locals, including John Edwards Holbrook, an internationally known herpetologist and a founder of the Medical College of South Carolina.
Holbrook offered Agassiz access to his Cooper River plantation where he could stroll and observe enslaved people up close. When the scientific meeting was in session, Agassiz kept busy presenting his own papers and opining on others. On day four, one by surgeon and anthropologist Josiah Nott particularly caught his attention. But when he heard what happened, he dashed off a note to Morton, the scientist with the skulls, a fellow polygenesis believer. But among his new friends was Dr. Robert Gibbes, a physician to elite planters in the state capital of Columbia.
The role gave Gibbes access to thousands of enslaved people on plantations — including the dwindling few who had been born in Africa. Congress had ended the international slave trade four decades earlier, so most slaves by then had been born in the United States. A good miles of pine forest and cotton fields later, he arrived.
Agassiz had never been to the interior of South Carolina. During his weeklong visit, he dined with the Hamptons, Taylors and other patricians of Columbia society. They too allowed him access to their plantations, where he thrilled at viewing captives from Africa up close. How many people were subjected to his notoriously rigorous observations, or just what they entailed, remains unknown, Rogers said. But given he would return to Boston soon, Agassiz surely lamented his fleeting access to this trove of people.
So he and Gibbes concocted a solution. It involved a fairly new technology that could produce permanent — and highly detailed — images. Before this technology arrived to huge fanfare in , only the most wealthy could afford portrait paintings. Few people had visual records of themselves. After Agassiz returned to Boston to marry and to pursue his work at Harvard, Gibbes moved forward with plans in earnest.
He reached out to Joseph Zealy, the top photographer in town. Zealy worked from a second-floor studio on Main Street downtown that welcomed clients into a handsomely decorated parlor complete with a piano. A dark backdrop, a rug with diamond patterns, a wooden chair, and a stool provided tools for taking elegant portraits. A skylight ensconced his subjects in natural light. What did each of them — Alfred, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, Delia and Renty — think when they were transported downtown to this strange building? Most of the people were middle-aged or older. Most also toiled on plantations owned by Benjamin Taylor, the Princeton-educated state representative, racehorse breeder and cotton grower.
A man named Renty, who hailed from the Congo, likely was the oldest. He arrived with his daughter Delia, likely the youngest, around 20 years old. Another man also came from a Taylor plantation. Born in Guinea, his named was Jack. Fassena, a year-old West African carpenter, was owned by Col. William Sherman would burn down 15 years later on his infamous March to the Sea. Jem, who was a few years older, likely was the only one who worked in the city, Rogers said.
His owner lived several blocks away from Gibbes. Surely Gibbes was there, directing Zealy as to how one should position specimens for observation: up close, then full body. Frontal view, side, back. History shrouds details of what happened inside the studio as each person stood before the camera for the 3 to 15 minutes each daguerreotype required. Daguerreotypes produce a black-and-white image that records the texture of every hair and nail, the divots of each wrinkle and scar.
Charleston historian Harlan Greene describes the images in an essay for a voluminous book about the daguerreotypes. When Zealy completed his work, he placed each picture into a leather case lined in red velvet and stamped with his name. Then he gave them to Gibbes. I wish you could see them. That fall, when Agassiz received the daguerreotypes, he apparently was so excited that he brought them to a gathering of his elite Harvard peers.
The men were part of the Cambridge Scientific Club, which counted among its members two Harvard presidents, historians, philosophers, lawyers and literature professor Henry Wworth Longfellow, although the poet wasn't there that evening. Rain poured as the men gathered in one members' palatial home. The night's discussion topic was the unity of races.
Those gathered studied the images: two women with their breasts exposed, men with naked genitals. What did they think? Ilisa Barbash, a Peabody curator and co-editor of the book, notes the particular exploitation of Black women who "were scrutinized on auction blocks, raped in the households where they served, and acted as 'wet nurses' to children not their own.
What was the reaction in that room? Rogers, who unearthed evidence the meeting occurred, said details remain elusive. Perhaps a clue lingers in the fact that Agassiz never published the images. Nor does it appear he presented them again.
Back before the internet could so easily set images free to the global masses, Harvard tried to restrict access to and dissemination of the disturbing photographs. One day in the s, Carrie Mae Weems, an acclaimed Black artist, ed the agreement.Nude sc
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