More Than a Photo

{image id=1313811 size=large byline=true caption="The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology."}

In the 19th century, Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz commissioned several daguerreotypes of slaves in his search to prove a scientific theory of white supremacy. These photographs, believed to be some of the oldest photos of American slaves in existence, were rediscovered in 1976 and today are housed in the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Last week, Tamara K. Lanier filed a landmark suit against Harvard in Middlesex Superior Court alleging that the University unlawfully possesses and profits from these photos. According to the complaint, the photos depict Lanier’s great-great-great grandfather, Renty, and his daughter, Delia. In her suit, Lanier asks that Harvard give her the photographs and the profits made from them, as well as pay punitive damages.

Harvard’s continued possession of and profit from these images is unethical and illegitimate. If a fair and evaluative due process concludes that the University is legally liable, we would support Harvard offering at minimum the dollar amount it has made from the possession and licensing of these photographs as well as returning them to their rightful owner.

These photographs are part of a long history of Harvard and its peer institutions using the social sciences to help create the systems of thought underpinning racial supremacy and oppression — systems that have in turn produced a lasting legacy of suffering, generational trauma, and abiding ignorance. In light of that history, Harvard should take this opportunity to think critically about how its scholarship has yielded intellectual systems that perpetuate oppression and how it can address this role.


In failing to adequately engage with Lanier’s 2011 letter to then-University President Drew G. Faust regarding the photos and documentation of her ancestry, the University missed an opportunity to seriously grapple with deeply-troubling aspects of its institutional legacy before legal action was taken. Given the wealth of artifacts in Harvard’s possession, Lanier’s request may not be the last of its kind. As such, Harvard should use this opportunity to develop a standard protocol for proactively responding to these requests. Such a protocol will need to determine and acknowledge rightful ownership as well as envisage a method for ethically returning artifacts and offering compensation to affected families.

But Harvard cannot stop there. On a deeper, more systemic level, the University must do the hard work of taking a critical approach to its possession, use, and continued acquisition of intellectual property and cultural artifacts. After all, these artifacts aren’t merely things of the past. The methodologies and canons that allowed for the theft of this cultural and intellectual property live on in our University and its departments of human inquiry.

We have previously argued that one way to begin this work is to develop an Ethnic Studies department on par with those found at comparable institutions. But given that Harvard has dragged its feet on this issue for almost half a century, we also encourage Harvard to develop other institutionally-embedded and meaningful forums for discussion of ethical research methods and more socially conscious ways of engaging with and creating knowledge.

While we recognize that Harvard has begun to do so, not least at a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study conference Lanier herself attended in 2017, we worry that Harvard has not done so in a sufficiently self-reflective manner. The very images in question, for example, were used as materials for this conference. The University should recognize that this was insensitive, and it must be more thoughtful about how it presents and conducts these discussions in future.

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Today we call upon Harvard to offer both: to return an unethically captured photograph and to step with clear purpose into an urgent dialogue about how its research has and continues to perpetuate deep inequality and intellectual injustice.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.