On March 15, 1850, the Harvard professor Louis Agassiz was in Charleston, South Carolina, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Swiss-born Agassiz had gained celebrity in Europe as one of the world’s premier natural scientists and was eager to make his mark in America. Though a self-described abolitionist, Agassiz had not come south to advance a theory of racial equality. Instead, he was in Charleston to give scientific sanction to the myth that upheld the South’s entire social and economic order: that African people were inherently inferior to European people.
After the meeting, Agassiz was taken to the nearby Benjamin Franklin Taylor plantation, where he selected several slaves to be photographed. After Agassiz departed, a man named Renty, his daughter Delia, and several other enslaved Africans were directed to strip nude and pose for a camera. Agassiz intended for the resulting daguerreotypes to be data points for the pseudo-scientific theory that he had traveled south to publicly endorse: polygenesis, the belief that humans originate from different parts of the globe and that the human race is made up of different species with different innate capacities.
Agassiz was my great-great-great-great grandfather. I first learned the story of Renty, Delia, and the Agassiz daguerreotypes six months ago because of a woman named Tamara Lanier, Renty’s great-great-great-granddaughter. One hundred and seventy years after the images of her ancestors were captured, Lanier filed a lawsuit against Harvard for “the wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation” of what should be the rightful property of Renty’s descendants. Forty-four of my fellow Agassiz descendants signed the letter I co-authored to Harvard supporting Lanier’s lawsuit. In June, my aunt Susanna and my mother, Marian, held a joint press conference with Lanier on Harvard’s campus and delivered the letter to the office of President Lawrence Bacow.
Lanier’s legal claim is straightforward. As property, Renty and Delia could not and did not consent to having their images captured. Therefore Agassiz could not then—and Harvard cannot now—claim to have lawful possession of their images. Lanier, their descendant and next of kin, is entitled to ownership of the daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia. In addition to immediate restitution of the negatives, Lanier asked Harvard to acknowledge that she is an authentic descendant of Renty and Delia. Lanier also requested an unspecified amount of “disgorgement, compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and just compensation as determined by a jury.” The possibility of allocating a portion of Harvard’s $40 billion endowment toward racial justice also looms large. Harvard was built in part on the profits of slavery, a fact they have begun to acknowledge publicly in recent years. They might take a note from the Virginia Theological Seminary or Princeton Theological Seminary, which have both set up formal reparations funds with money from their endowments this year numbering $1.7 million and $27.6 million, respectively.
In July Lanier’s legal team, led by the attorneys Benjamin Crump and Joshua Koskoff, began closed meetings with Harvard lawyers. At the end of September, the parties filed a joint stay of motion for two months to make “progress in their active discussion related to the issues raised in the complaint.” Harvard and Lanier have agreed in good faith to refrain from public comment on the negotiations while they’re still in progress. But that good faith may have been undermined earlier this month when President Bacow jokingly compared the relationship between Harvard and its alumni to slavery. The thought of Bacow sitting in a room of wealthy Harvard graduates likening a change in the school’s donorship structure to the liberation of her ancestors from bondage was salt in the wound for Lanier, who has spent the better part of the past decade working tirelessly for acknowledgment from the university.
Lanier grew up hearing stories from her mother Mattye about their ancestor Papa Renty: how he was a respected elder who had secretly taught himself and others to read from a copy of Noah Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book. The importance of his story was something Mattye stressed all her life. After Mattye passed away in 2010 Tamara began researching in earnest with the diligence of an investigative journalist. She assembled a team of genealogists, combed through old Census and voter registration records—and even visited with then 98-year-old Edmund Taylor, the descendant of Renty’s former owner. Lanier came to realize that Papa Renty from her bedtime stories and Renty from the Agassiz daguerreotypes were the same person.
Since she first reached out in 2011, Harvard has ignored and dismissed Lanier. They’ve repeatedly cast aspersions on the veracity of her relation, even though Lanier’s claim was certified by the genealogist Toni Carrier, who contributed to Michelle Obama’s genealogy and to the PBS series African American Lives, hosted by Harvard’s own Henry Louis Gates. It also was verified by Chris Childs, the genealogist who worked with President Obama.
In 2017 Harvard hosted “Universities and Slavery, Bound by History,” an event that featured a conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and then-President Drew Faust on the hundreds of years of plunder visited on black America and the role American universities, including Harvard, played in that. The cover of the event program featured Renty’s image with a caption: “Renty, lived and worked as a slave in South Carolina in 1850, when his photograph was taken for the Harvard professor Louis Agassiz as a part of Agassiz’s scientific research. While Agassiz earned acclaim, Renty returned to invisibility.” Lanier and her daughters Shonrael and Megan were horrified to read the misrepresentation as they sat in the audience that day. Lanier had spent six years making Renty visible, and here she was, made to feel invisible herself. This was the last straw that led Lanier to seek legal recourse.
The sanitization of Agassiz is part of a wider effort to downplay the prominence and global influence of American race science. Agassiz was not an eccentric or an outlier but part of an ideological tradition. His mentor Georges Cuvier preserved the remains of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman who was paraded across Europe in the early 19th century as part of a freak show—one of the earliest examples of scientific racism. Along with Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, and George Gliddon, Agassiz was part of what biologist Joseph Graves calls “The Four Horsemen of Polygenism.” Agassiz wrote a chapter in Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind, a best-selling compendium that Frederick Douglass referred to as “scientific moonshine.” It’s not difficult to draw a line from the polygenism school to the ideas expressed in the writings of the eugenicist and fellow naturalist Madison Grant. Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race was a favorite not only of Theodore Roosevelt but also of Adolf Hitler, who personally wrote Grant to tell him it was “his bible.”
In recent years there’s been a resurgence of using science to give racism a sheen of respectability and make hierarchy appear as the natural order. The myth of immutable racial difference animates the alt-right and rising neo-fascist movements around the world. The theory of black cognitive inferiority expressed in the best-selling 1994 book The Bell Curve, written by Charles Murray and Harvard’s own Richard Herrnstein, is having a renaissance. From the alt-right to the adjacent “intellectual dark web,” widely debunked, toxic theories are repackaged as forbidden knowledge that the politically correct social order cannot contend with. In 2016 Donald Trump’s former chief of staff Steve Bannon wrote in a post on Breitbart News about black victims of police killings: “There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent.”
The truth is that Agassiz had as much in common biologically with Renty and Delia as he did with his relatives in Switzerland. This would come as a surprise to the American public, who in large numbers still believe race to be a biological fact—not an arbitrary identity shaped by historical context and relationships of power. This idea of separate groups of people that can be scientifically defined would not have the same purchase if it weren’t for the groundwork laid by Agassiz and his cohort. Renty and Delia deserve better than to languish in the Peabody Museum unwittingly participating in their own dehumanization.
The suit brought by Tamara Lanier is radical in its simplicity. If we are committed to grappling with one of the foundational lies of American life, there must be a fundamental reconsideration of who owns the spoils of plunder. We must cast a light on the deep and enduring racist roots of American science. And we must move forward in prioritizing an expansive program of reparations. In April, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow told The Harvard Crimson that in this case, “I think we have the law on our side.” The law was on the side of Louis Agassiz, too. The truth never was.