Scholars discussed the history of scientific racism and abolition through the lens of a new book on slave daguerreotypes in a panel hosted by the Radcliffe Institute Thursday afternoon.
Radcliffe hosted the panel in partnership with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Entitled “The Enduring Legacy of Slavery and Racism in the North,” it was moderated by professor Tiya A. Miles '92 and featured Executive Director of Royall House and Slave Quarters Kyera Singleton, University of Connecticut professor Manisha Sinha, and Harvard English professor John W. Stauffer as panelists.
The discussion focused on a new book, titled “To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes.” Panelists examined the ways scholars historically have used daguerreotypes to reinforce polygenism — a debunked evolutionary theory of racial difference.
Louis Agassiz, a famous Harvard professor of Zoology and proponent of polygenism in the mid 1800s, was a central figure in the talk. To search for physical evidence of polygenism, Agassiz commissioned Joseph T. Zealy in 1850 to capture fifteen daguerreotypes portraying people of African descent enslaved in South Carolina by the names of Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty.
The panel’s renewed attention on the Zealy daguerreotypes comes during an ongoing lawsuit demanding that the University return the daguerreotypes to Tamara K. Lanier, who says she is a descendant of Renty and his daughter Delia.
Boston was a hotbed of abolitionism but was home to relatively few African Americans, Stauffer said in an interview Tuesday.
“Agassiz obviously spent virtually no time around African Americans, he didn't know them at all. So he's judging them. He's assessing them from a distance,” Stauffer said.
“As a scientist, it's important not to lose sight of your humanity when you are immersed in the science,” he added.
Black abolitionists not only worked to end slavery in the United States, but also to “redefine freedom” itself, Singleton said.
“Although slavery existed in Massachusetts, and then the North more generally, we often celebrate and talk about the North legacy of abolitionism, a story that often, too often, is actually about white abolitionism in particular,” she said.
The panelists also discussed current scholarship focused on centering Black stories in American history. Singleton spoke about her work with the Royall House and Slave Quarters, contextualizing the lives enslaved people led within the mansion. The Royalls were a wealthy Boston family who enslaved 64 people; Isaac Royall, Jr. endowed the first professorship at Harvard Law School.
Between 1999 and 2001, archaeologists discovered game pieces and smoking pipes associated with enslaved people on the historical property.
“That has allowed us to begin to tell a complex story about how enslaved people experienced not only enslavement, but also leisure, and how they made a life for themselves amidst the brutal violation of slavery,” Singleton said. “These objects have helped us reinterpret the site, and to think through hard questions of agency and resistance while centering the lives of those who were enslaved.”
The interracial American abolitionist movement inspired succeeding movements for gender equality and overlapped with pacifism and utopian socialism — a legacy that can inspire today’s activists during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sinha said in an interview Wednesday.
“The abolitionists did it in circumstances that were even worse when 90 percent of the black population was enslaved. The Civil Rights Movement did it,” Sinha said. “And I think it's up to us now, and the younger generation of Americans.”