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Columns

The Silencing of Tamara Lanier

Between the Cracks

Attorneys Josh D. Koskoff, left, and Ben L. Crump, right, accompany Tamara K. Lanier on her way to a press conference after their hearing before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston in November 2021.
Attorneys Josh D. Koskoff, left, and Ben L. Crump, right, accompany Tamara K. Lanier on her way to a press conference after their hearing before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston in November 2021. By Raquel Coronell Uribe
By Guillermo S. Hava, Crimson Opinion Writer
Guillermo S. Hava ’23-’24, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Government and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. His column, “Between the Cracks,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

On May 3, 1996, a Connecticut fifth grader named Shonrael Lanier penned her very first book report: An account of her family history, drafted with the help of her maternal grandmother, titled “From These Roots I came.” The report, bound by a tired green spine and geometric covers, reads as follows:

“My roots grow deeper than slave times. Yet it is almost impossible to go further than the lonely, tough times of slavery. Regrettably, I can only tell you as far back as my great-grandfather Fred Thompson.”

“Fred Thompson was born to the former slave Renty Thompson.”

What ten-year-old Shonrael didn’t know, and what her mother, Tamara Lanier, would only discover later, was that the presumed father of Renty Thompson, “Papa” Renty — names travel generationally in her family — was still out there. Not physically, certainly not alive and well, but immortalized, hung, and framed inside the nation’s top academic institution.

While his great-great-granddaughter sang his glories from Connecticut, Renty remained far from his own, captive inside the daguerreotype that Harvard scholar and eugenicist Louis Agassiz had taken of him almost a century prior in an attempt to prove his intrinsic inferiority.

It would take over a decade for Shonrael’s mother to find Renty, and even longer for her story to make it to the public record. Our own newspaper would — inexplicably and despite an early interview that got squashed before publication — introduce Renty to the Harvard community only in 2019.

But by 1996, Shonrael almost knew her link to Renty; he was her blood, kin, and legacy.

***

Shonrael’s mother, Tamara Lanier, had grown up under the humbling shadows of revered ancestors.

“As far back as I can remember,” she told me in a recent interview, “my mom would talk about Papa Renty.” He was “a community person” who didn’t only teach himself to read — “no easy feat,” as Lanier quips — but also taught others “at his own peril”: Renty was an enslaved Black man who held bible sessions for his peers. Tamara’s mother would speak of him “with such a reverence, with such a love and respect.” A man lost to the yoke of false masters and time, of whom little but oral histories remained.

The rest, at this point, is history. By 2010, her health rapidly declining, Lanier’s mother became increasingly fixated on untangling the stories of Renty and others. With her death, genealogical research became Tamara’s uneasy birthright — except she barely knew where to begin.

“I have never broken a promise — and my mom, between us there were no broken promises, there were no pledges made that we didn’t follow through with,” she told me. “And so I really felt guilty.”

Yet luck was on her side; some vague, fateful sense of historic justice seemed to nudge her home. One day, Lanier said, she stopped at “a small ice cream shop to pick up lunch.” Having built up a rapport with the owner through previous visits, she brought up her mother’s dying wish, and he offered to help. Lanier was skeptical — “I remember thinking, you know, at this time, most seniors did not even know how to find the power button to turn the computer on, let alone get on and get to the internet” — but she agreed.

Lanier didn’t visit the shop for a couple of weeks, accidentally slipping out of her role as a regular customer. When she did return, the vendor was ecstatic.

“He was standing at the register, and he threw his hands up in the air and he said ‘Where have you been? I found your Papa Renty,’” she recounted.

The momentum seemed unstoppable. Lanier was forwarded the image of the man she still claims as her ancestor. She was certain when she saw him — she knew, she told me, “that [he] was the Papa Renty I had heard so many stories about as a child, that my children heard so many stories about during their childhood.” Genealogical studies, name tracing, and even a visit to the Deep South followed, each confirming her certainty.

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was founded in 1866.
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was founded in 1866. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

But Harvard wouldn’t budge. According to Lanier, the University and then-President Drew G. Faust repeatedly refused to engage with her requests to get better access to the daguerreotypes or verify her ties to those depicted.

Renty’s story would, yet again, have to wait.

***

By 2016, the situation had become almost farcical. Harvard found itself on the verge of grappling with its legacy of slavery: The University had announced plans to unveil a plaque honoring formerly enslaved individuals at Harvard, inviting civil rights icon John Lewis to speak at the ceremony.

To mark the occasion, Faust penned an op-ed for The Crimson, describing the need to acknowledge a past that “continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore,” all while allegedly declining Lanier’s request to attend the ceremony, according to Lanier. (President Faust declined, after directing my query to a University spokesperson, to comment on this story).

This time around, Lanier contacted The Crimson too — aware, perhaps, of the extent to which public pressure might shape the University’s response. The reporters were “thrilled to have the chance to speak with” her, they emailed Lanier, and followed up on her offer to come to Cambridge for an in-person interview. She obliged, and then waited for the article that might change everything — the article that could, overnight, make her tale one the University wouldn’t be able to ignore any further.

Then came the email, subject line “Update on your interview”:

“Unfortunately, we have ultimately decided that we won't be publishing excerpts of your interview because of concerns the Peabody Museum has raised and because recent events on campus have caused our own story to focus more on the Harvard Law School.”

It would take years — just enough to fully renew the makeup of our newsroom — for The Crimson to cover Lanier’s tale. Our own coverage, tethered to the launch of Lanier’s still ongoing litigation against the University, trailed everyone from local Connecticut papers to (by a day) The New York Times.

A Harvard story that merited a lengthy feature in America’s paper of record would remain out of our own pages for three years after it was initially brought to The Crimson’s attention — three more years out of the minds and hearts of Harvard affiliates, three more years out of the spotlight.

***

Lanier never learned what “concerns” the Peabody Museum had expressed to The Crimson in 2016. When I reached out to the museum last month looking for answers, a spokeswoman for the University couldn’t elaborate on them for this article. Still, Lanier seems to hold no ill will towards the student journalists who forsook such an immanently tellable story well after conducting adequate sourcing — “I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus,” she told me.

But it does seem like someone ought to be under the bus.

The reference to a change in the piece’s focus strikes me as almost laughable: I have not, in my days at The Crimson, met a single news editor who I’d expect to drop a scoop of Lanier’s proportions and never pick it back up. The concerns the Peabody raised certainly didn’t prevent other outlets from telling the story, nor did they deter well-respected legal professionals from championing her case, nor did they stop the Massachusetts Supreme Court from siding with Lanier’s right to pursue claims of “reckless infliction of emotional distress” against Harvard.

We might never find out how or why we missed Lanier’s story: Both the author of the email — now a professional journalist in his own right — and his then-President and Managing Editor declined to comment on the developments on the record.

Perhaps the reporters were simply scared — scared at comments like those the University had provided to other outlets. These comments cast doubt on the accuracy of Lanier’s claims, accusing her of providing next to no evidence, all while, in her telling, failing to even attempt to verify the result of her years-long quest. Scared, maybe, of what would follow if they pursued a story they were sternly advised not to pursue.

Lanier at times sounded like she thought that was the case: “I get the politics,” she noted.

The anecdote is only another minor detail in the textured tapestry of Lanier’s life. But it also holds an unspoken cautionary tale — one meant for all of us who wrestle with spokespeople and PR representatives and cold corporate email accounts you reach out to for any semblance of a comment.

The thing about erring on the side of caution when dealing with stories that stain the powerful is that a fair amount of caution can be bought through intimidation alone — and that not every worthwhile story, not even those that go on to become New York Times features, will be free from fauxly rightful pushback.

Years later, having produced abundant and proud coverage of the Lanier case, we can only awkwardly stare at that three-year gap when her story went untold — when we let her story go untold — and take limited comfort in knowing that we weren’t the only ones.

If The Crimson was late to acknowledge Lanier, the University remains, even later, steadfast in its refusal to do so.

The 132-page-long Report on the Legacy of Slavery at Harvard passingly mentions Papa Renty exactly thrice, but makes no reference to his descendant’s struggles with our University; the Peabody’s website, in an uneasy embodiment of our University’s vacuous well-meaning, includes a land acknowledgment to the Massachusett people but no press release related to Lanier or the daguerreotypes’ uneasy origins.

Turns out that wrestling with your legacy of slavery is less jarring when you discard any of its breathing embodiments.

Guillermo S. Hava ’23-’24, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a Government and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. His column, “Between the Cracks,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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