Part of the Harvard University campus.
Maddie Meyer, Gett Images
Massachusetts’ highest court on Thursday ruled that Harvard University could be sued for mistreating a descendent of slaves who were forced to be photographed for an 1850 study by a professor trying to prove the inferiority of Black people.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Harvard’s “horrific, historic role” in creating the images meant it had a duty to carefully respond to Tamara Lanier’s requests for information about them, which she said the university failed to do.
But the court said the Ivy League school does not need to hand over the photos to Lanier, concluding that despite the “egregious” circumstances she had no rightful property interest in them.
The decision partially revives a lawsuit the Connecticut woman filed in 2019. Josh Koskoff, Lanier’s lawyer, in a statement called the ruling a “historic win.”
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard said it was reviewing the decision.
The images depict Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, slaves on a South Carolina plantation who were forced to disrobe for photos taken for a racist study by Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz.
Justice Scott Kafker wrote that Harvard had “cavalierly” dismissed Lanier’s claims of an ancestral link and disregarded her requests for information about how it was using the images, including when the school used Renty’s image on a book cover.
Kafker said Harvard’s conduct meant a jury could reasonably determine it recklessly caused Lanier to suffer emotional distress through its “extreme and outrageous conduct.”
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