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Judge rules Harvard owns slave images, not descendants

A Massachusetts judge dismissed a lawsuit against Harvard filed by the descendant over ownership of enslaved people. File Photo by Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock
A Massachusetts judge dismissed a lawsuit against Harvard filed by the descendant over ownership of enslaved people. File Photo by Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock

March 6 (UPI) -- A Massachusetts judge ruled this week that a series of slave images belong to Harvard University, but the ancestor of the subjects who were forced to strip to the waist for the photos plans to appeal.

Middlesex County Superior Court Justice Camille Sarrouf said Tamara Lanier, who brought the lawsuit two years ago, did not own the images since her enslaved ancestors, father and daughter, Renty and Delia, whose photos were taken for a racist study, did not own them when they were taken.

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"Fully acknowledging the continuing impact slavery has had in the United States, the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph's origins may be," Sarrouf wrote in explanation of the judgment filed Tuesday.

Harvard professor Louis Agassiz commissioned the photos in 1850 for a study arguing that Black people were an inferior race. The photos are currently kept in a Harvard University campus museum. But Lanier, whom the court has not disputed is a direct descendant, said they're part of her personal family history.

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The judge "completely missed the humanistic aspect of this, where we're talking about the patriarch of a family, a subject of bedtime stories whose legacy is still denied to these people," Lanier told The New York Times, adding that she plans to appeal.

Harvard said in a statement to The Times the photos were "powerful visual indictments of the horrific institution of slavery," and it hoped the ruling would allow them to make the photos "more accessible to a broader segment of the public and to tell the stories of the enslaved people that they depict."

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