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Should Harvard Students and Alumni Be So Proud?

By Meredith N. McKinney
Meredith N. McKinney is a Harvard Extension School student.

As a Harvard student, you carry a unique sense of pride by being part of a best-in-class institution. You’re expected to work hard and make large sacrifices to succeed. In return, you anticipate the preeminence and integrity synonymous with the Harvard name to support alumni as they advance in this world.

In March 2019, serious doubts about Harvard’s integrity surfaced by way of disturbing attitudes and practices from both our University administration and the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. In the legal battle now underway about images of slaves, court documents and various media coverage depict our school’s dismissive, aggressive behavior toward descendants of slaves.

The lawsuit, filed by Tamara K. Lanier on March 20, 2019, alleges that Harvard and the Peabody have used, published, sold rights to, and displayed images of two slaves, Renty and Delia, for profit, for years.

The Laniers offer extensive genealogical research, such as census records and slave inventories, to support their claim of relation to Renty and Delia. They first reached out to Harvard in 2011 to share their research, establish lineage, and learn of the intentions for future use of their family members’ images. Sadly, neither Harvard nor the Peabody opened their doors to them, according to Lanier’s complaint. In response to being ignored, and after witnessing Harvard use images of their family repeatedly without permission, the Laniers filed suit against Harvard and the Peabody.

Students and alumni, we call upon you to ask yourselves: “Can we be proud of this?” Here are three moral challenges to consider.

Challenge One: When asked by The Crimson about the lawsuit, University President Lawrence S. Bacow said, “I think we have the law on our side.”

In a motion to dismiss filed recently, Harvard did not even dispute the Laniers’ ancestry. Instead, the University is leveraging property law to argue ownership of slave photos — while a family is fighting for the images to be recognized, respected, and surrendered to them as family property. This position is thoughtless at best.

Students believe Harvard to be an advanced, progressive institution promoting freedom, equality, diversity, knowledge, and peace. However, our administrators are not promoting these ideals, and apparently must be reminded that laws once supported slave codes and fugitive slave acts. Did Bacow forget Jim Crow or that our Supreme Court once ruled segregation legal?

This is not an issue of law; this is an issue of morality and recognizing the persistent institutional violence perpetuated by the University toward slaves.

Challenge Two: Harvard administrators claim their use and display of Renty and Delia’s images emphasize the slaves’ humanity.

But the photos of these slaves were taken in the 1850s during the height of slavery. According to the complaint, Renty and his daughter were stripped, photographed, and cataloged, all without their consent. More importantly, the photos were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, who sought evidence to support theories that humans had more than one origin (and thus that Africans were subhuman).

The disturbing context of that time and situation is frozen in the faces of Renty and Delia and can never be changed (not even by Harvard). Moreover, the persistent entitlement that Harvard and the Peabody have demonstrated to these images strongly questions their own concepts and definitions of humanity.

Challenge Three: In December 2019, the Peabody’s director, Jane Pickering, assumed and appointed the museum an “ethical steward” of both images and stories of Renty and Delia, and announced its intention to further publicly promote them.

But who anointed Pickering with the divine authority to assume stewardship over the images of Renty and Delia, and how could the Peabody suddenly possess stories of them? They have not opened their doors to the Laniers, and therefore have no new insights to offer. To insinuate otherwise is reckless.

Perhaps our most important question: Why must we remind Harvard and its affiliates that it is not their duty to own images or stories of enslaved people?

Harvard has taken some steps in the right direction. In late November 2019, Bacow admitted to institutional ignorance related to the depths of Harvard’s contributions to slavery and appointed the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.

We also do agree with Pickering’s December statement that the Peabody “can, and should, do more” to open its doors to descendants of slaves, to support their search for stolen lineage, and to contribute to the discovery of their heritage.

But that alone is not enough. Both Harvard and the Peabody must stop promoting and exploiting images of Renty and Delia. At minimum, we must show respect to the Lanier family and wait for a ruling on the lawsuit.

The student-led Harvard Coalition to Free Renty will congregate in coming weeks to review the Lanier case and take a critical look at how our school treats descendants of slaves. We will continue to spread student awareness while calling upon Bacow and the Peabody to immediately surrender these images to the Lanier family, while continuing good faith dialogue in the exploration of reparations.

Harvard and the Peabody have a responsibility to support slave descendants, not battle families to own their stories. This lawsuit, partnered with Harvard’s entitled behavior, not only deeply wounds student morale and pride, but smears the Harvard name and the integrity attached to it.

Meredith N. McKinney is a Harvard Extension School student.

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