A revived lawsuit filed by Tamara K. Lanier against Harvard over its possession of daguerreotypes she alleges are of her enslaved ancestors will proceed to discovery, a Massachusetts state judge ruled at a hearing last Thursday.
Lanier first filed suit against Harvard in 2019, alleging that the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology wrongfully possesses daguerreotypes depicting Renty and Delia, two enslaved people whom Lanier claims are her ancestors.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court partially overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss the suit and ruled that Lanier had the grounds to sue the University for emotional distress in June 2022.
At Thursday’s hearing, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Christopher K. Barry-Smith ruled from the bench against Harvard’s December 2022 motion to strike clauses from the Lanier team’s third amended complaint filed in October 2022. These clauses claim that the University violated the rights of Renty and Delia by continuing to hold the daguerreotypes and that it breached its duty of care to Lanier by “publicly and cavalierly dismissing” her ancestral claim to Renty and Delia.
Barry-Smith noted that a standard case typically takes a year to go to trial from this point, though he added it could differ in this instance.
Barry-Smith also ruled that Lanier did not need to provide further details to support her claims of emotional distress, saying that the “same set of facts” could be used to determine whether Lanier’s allegations will “rise to the level” of negligence “or worse.”
Barry-Smith did not provide a ruling on Lanier’s requests for relief, as he needs to know if he has the discretion to do so under Massachusetts statutes. He said he will issue a decision “very soon,” adding that his inclination is to wait until trial to rule on what relief Lanier is entitled to.
During the hearing, Harvard’s defense attorney Anton Metlitsky reiterated arguments made in the University’s December 2022 motion to dismiss Lanier’s emotional distress claim. Metlitsky said that Lanier’s request for the restitution of the daguerreotypes to her family is a “form of relief just cannot be available” after the SJC maintained in June 2022 that Lanier does not have a legal property claim to the daguerreotypes.
If Lanier had only brought the property charges in the initial suit, and not the charges of emotional distress, Mitlitsky said, “the case would be over. We wouldn’t be here.”
Lanier’s team argued that the case should proceed to trial and a jury should decide whether she had equitable grounds to repossess the daguerreotypes as a form of punitive damages.
In addition, Metlitsky argued during the hearing that the University seeks to keep the daguerreotypes for educational purposes and “show them in context.”
“That is not possible when there is a legal cloud hanging over the title,” Metlitsky said.
One of Lanier’s lead attorneys, Benjamin L. Crump, argued that Lanier, rather than Harvard, should educate the public about the history of Renty and Delia.
“Ms. Lanier has always wanted to have those daguerreotypes to be used to educate the public on the evils of slavery,” Crump said. “What she has a problem with is that Harvard feels, because of their arrogance, that they’re in the best position to use the daguerreotypes.”
After the hearing, Lanier said in an interview that she was “over the moon excited” that the case will move forward.
“I was a little apprehensive going into the hearing, but the moment the judge started speaking, I just felt that he had really thoroughly reviewed the Supreme Court decision and that decision is a stinging indictment of Harvard,” Lanier said.
Joshua D. Koskoff, one of Lanier’s attorneys, said in an interview after the hearing that he is interested in collecting testimonies from former University President Drew G. Faust and current University President Lawrence S. Bacow about their justification for maintaining possession of the daguerreotypes and for their treatment of Lanier.
Peabody and Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that the University is “hopeful the Court’s ruling will allow Harvard to explore an appropriate home for the daguerreotypes” that makes them “more accessible to a broader segment of the public and to tell the stories of the enslaved people that they depict.”
The daguerreotypes were commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a Harvard biologist that researched polygenism — a pseudoscientific and racist field that maintains race determines genetic superiority.
Susanna M. Moore, a descendant of Agassiz, expressed her support for Lanier’s case and called on Harvard to return the daguerreotypes to Lanier in an interview after the hearing.
“It seems to me that in certain circumstances, moral authority needs to take the upper hand over technical issues with the law, and it’s about time for us to recognize what slavery meant in this country,” she said.
Lanier’s daughter Shonrael Lanier said in an interview after the hearing that the yearslong legal process has been “bittersweet” but is hopeful that the discovery and trial will allow the world to know Renty “for the man that he was and not for what the man that Harvard claims that he is or isn’t.”
“It’s been over 170 years in the making,” Koskoff said. “Finally, we’re going to get to tell this story to a jury.”