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Lawsuit: Harvard 'Shamelessly' Profits From Photos Of Slaves

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Paul Geffen
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/lpgeffe
Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Updated at 4:05 p.m.

A woman suing Harvard University over portraits of two 19th-century slaves says she hopes her lawsuit sparks a national reckoning with its history of racism. 

Tamara Lanier of Norwich, Connecticut, said at a news conference outside the Harvard Club of New York City on Wednesday that her case is important because "it will test the moral climate of this country."

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Massachusetts state court, Lanier says Harvard has ignored her request to turn over depicting slaves she says are her ancestors — and that Harvard has "shamelessly" turned a profit from the images.

Harvard says it is not in a position to comment on the lawsuit. Spokesman Jonathan Swain said on Wednesday the Ivy League university had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

The images depict a South Carolina slave named Renty and his daughter, Delia. Lanier says she is a direct descendant.

Lanier's suit says the photos were commissioned by former Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose ideas were used to support the enslavement of Africans. Her lawsuit asks Harvard to relinquish the photos and pay unspecified damages.

The lawsuit says Harvard requires "hefty" licensing fees to reproduce the photos, and has used one image on the cover of a book.

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