Harvard to be sued over photos depicting woman’s enslaved ancestors

Image - Harvard University: Wikimedia Commons

Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court has ruled on the 23rd June 2022 that Conneticut woman Tamara Lanier can sue Ivy-League school Harvard over emotional distress caused by historical photos owned by the university depicting her enslaved ancestors.

After an initial dismissal by the lower court of her complaint about the photos, Lanier has now been given permission to sue Harvard over the images. Lanier has asserted that she considers the university to have exploited the daguerrotypes for profit. The photos themselves are thought to be some of the earliest depictions of enslaved people in the US.

The grounds for suing are based on the suffering of Lanier and her family due to Harvard’s “negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress”. Even after Lanier had spoken to the university about her ancestral ties, the institution used one of the images on the cover of a book and featured it prominently in materials for a campus conference without getting in touch with her.

The ruling states that Harvard has failed in its “duty of care” to its students by dismissing Lanier’s “ancestral claims” and disregarding her requests to be “informed of further developments”, as reported by Bloomberg.com.

Thursday’s ruling has been described as a “historic win” by Lanier’s attorney, and is one of the first demonstrations of a court allowing descendants of enslaved people to seek accountability for what their ancestors endured.

However, the court has maintained that the photos are the property of the photographer, rather than of the subjects depicted within them.

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Image - Annie Dabb
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Annie Dabb

From Newcastle originally, Annie is based in Manchester and is a writer for the Euro Weekly News covering news and features. Got a story you want to share? Then get in touch at [email protected]