In 2019, Tamara Lanier sued Harvard University claiming that she was the rightful owner of daguerreotypes of an enslaved father and daughter. A Massachusetts judge has dismissed her claim, ruling that it’s Harvard that should own the images after all.
The haunting daguerreotypes depict Renty and Delia, a father and daughter who were enslaved in the 19th century. They were taken in 1850 as “proof” that Black people were inferior. That theory had thankfully been discredited, and the images stayed hidden in a Harvard museum until 1976. It is believed that these are the earliest known photos of American slaves.
Tamara Lanier, who filed the suit against Harvard, is Ranty’s direct descendant. She discovered the images in 2010 when she started tracing her genealogy. So, she claimed that she was supposed to be the rightful owner of his images. In her lawsuit, she claimed that Harvard had “exploited the images for financial gain.” For example, the university used Ranty’s photo on a book cover.
However, judge Camille F. Sarrouf rejected both of Lanier’s claims. As the New York Times reports, the judge acknowledged that the photos “had been taken under ‘horrific circumstances.’” She also didn’t dispute Lanier’s proof that she was Ranty’s linear descendant. However, she explained that Lanier couldn’t be the owner of the daguerreotypes because Ranty and Delia didn’t own them when they were taken either. “It is a basic tenet of common law that the subject of a photograph has no interest in the negative or any photographs printed from the negative,” the judge explained.
As far as “exploiting images for financial gain” goes, the judge rejected this claim as well. She ruled that “the right to control commercial use of the photographs had expired with the deaths of the subjects.”
Harvard said in a statement that the daguerreotypes were “powerful visual indictments of the horrific institution of slavery.” The institution hopes that the court’s ruling would allow it to make them “more accessible to a broader segment of the public and to tell the stories of the enslaved people that they depict.”
Tamara Lanier said that she plans to appeal the judge’s decision, according to the New York Times. She argues that the judge “completely missed the humanistic aspect of this, where we’re talking about the patriarch of a family, a subject of bedtime stories, whose legacy is still denied to these people.” She also added that “she hoped her lawsuit would draw interest to the bigger issue of who owned the ‘cultural property’ of enslaved people.” She had been working with Harvard students on legislation that would protect the rights of families like hers, the New York Times reports.
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