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Harvard Has No Right to Own the Images of the Enslaved

By Thomas R. Bishop, Contributing Opinion Writer

Harvard will continue to perpetuate its legacy of racism and white supremacy as long as it retains remnants of slavery and white supremacy. One timely example is Harvard’s fight to retain ownership of the early images of enslaved Black people commissioned by racist Harvard natural scientist Louis Agassiz.

The images, rediscovered in the 1970s, were daguerreotypes, early types of photographs, commissioned in 1850 by Louis Agassiz. His request for detailed images of Black bodies for study used enslaved men and women, without their permission, to facilitate his claims that he could prove the inferiority of the Black race through scientific study. Harvard’s ownership of these images continues the legacy of white institutional ownership of Black bodies. To emancipate itself from this legacy of white supremacy, Harvard must renounce ownership of the images and give them to an African-American history museum.

Agassiz was born in Switzerland and educated in Europe before moving to the United States to work as a natural scientist and zoologist. He received a teaching position at Harvard in the 1840s where he spent much of his time creating the University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Agassiz’s 19th-century daguerreotypes are some of the earliest images of enslaved men and women. According to Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Agassiz commissioned the images to study Black bodies and “used polygenism to argue that Black people were part of an inferior race.”

The photos included seven subjects: Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty, all from South Carolina plantations, with stoic expressions . Each image exhibits their Blackness like specimens, placed squarely in the photo’s frame for maximum observation. Some photos show only the top half of the subjects, while others show them fully nude, standing facing forward and sideways. The photos show strong but worn-down Black people — people who have been beaten, forced to work, and humiliated. The most striking element of the photos are their eyes, which tell a story of sadness and dehumanization under slavery. However, the unethical display of these images — which were photographed for the purpose of elevating racist ideologies — only bolster the credibility of the pseudo-scientist that commissioned them.

The issue of ownership of the images gained attention after Tamara Lanier sued Harvard for the daguerreotypes, claiming to be a direct descendant of Renty. In March 2021, a Massachusetts judge dismissed Lanier’s lawsuit, arguing that the images of this type belong to the photographer and not the subject. More than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, spoils of their labor and images of the enslaved still belong to the enslaver’s enabler.

The debate on the ownership of Black and Indigenous art comes as museums worldwide reckon with the movement to return stolen art to their rightful owners. Many African nations are fighting for and regaining control of their stolen artifacts, and African leaders like Chimamanda Adichie are underscoring this effort in their advocacy. She explained to German leaders at the country’s new Humboldt Forum museum that a “nation that believes in the rule of law cannot possibly be debating whether to return stolen goods. It just returns them.” So should Harvard.

The Agassiz daguerreotypes aren’t artifacts stolen from great African nations through the treachery, looting, and wealth extraction of colonialism. But they are stolen images of Black bodies taken without permission and used to perpetuate the lies of white supremacy.

For its part, Harvard released a statement about the Agassiz images calling them “powerful visual indictments of the horrific institution of slavery” and expressed the wish to make the images “more accessible to a broader segment of the public and to tell the stories of the enslaved people that they depict.” Harvard being allowed to control the usage and ownership of these images is akin to a predator retaining the ownership of revenge porn. This must change.

Harvard’s relationship with Agassiz cannot be decoupled from his adherence and mission to use the images to reinforce white supremacy. Regardless of what any court rules, Harvard must do what’s right and find a museum dedicated to African-American history and give it the daguerreotypes. The University should relinquish their interest in the images and have Black scholars at Harvard — the Black Alumni Society, Black students, and community leaders — lead the search to find these images a new home. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Museum of African American History in Boston are possibilities for a new home. There are many African American history museums around the country that could benefit from owning and sharing these images and their story with the world.

Six of the seven subjects of the images lived long enough to see emancipation in 1865. But as long as their images remain in the University’s possession, they can never be fully free. Black bodies, even in photography, deserve a home free of inequality and white supremacy. Harvard is not that home.

Thomas R. Bishop is a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

This piece is a part of a focus on Black authors and experiences for Black History Month.

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