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Norwich woman sues Harvard University over photos of her enslaved ancestors

NORWICH -  A woman in Norwich has been at odds with Harvard University for years. She has been suing the Ivy League school over photos of her ancestors who were slaves in the 19th century and since then, she has gotten a lot of support.

Tamara Lanier, 56, of Norwich said growing up, her mother, Mattye always told stories about their ancestors. One of them that came up a lot was her great-great-great grandfather who went by the nickname of “Papa Renty.”

“He would also read to people from the Bible and he was just like this larger than life community figure,” said Lanier of Norwich.

Lanier made a promise to her mother to find out more about him. Lanier unexpectedly met an ice cream shop owner who loved researching genealogy and weeks went by until they reconnected.

“He’s like ‘where have you been?! I found your grandfather on the Internet!’” added Lanier.

With suspicions at first, Lanier opened up a link from Harvard University.

“When I opened the picture and saw the image, I knew in my heart that that was the man that I had heard so much about,” added Lanier.

The images of who she said are her ancestors were commissioned by Professor Louis Aggasiz at Harvard. His goal was to prove blacks were inferior to whites.

For years, Lanier attempted to get the photographs from Harvard but was turned down each time. It was just earlier this year when she sued the University.

“They would respond very pleasantly but very dismissively and never answer the questions that I’ve asked,” added Lanier.

FOX61 reached out to Harvard University for a comment and in a statement, it read:

“We cannot comment on the subject of ongoing litigation, but Harvard has and will continue to come to terms with and address its historic connection to slavery. Harvard also strives to be an ethical steward of the millions of historical objects from around the globe within its museum and library collections. The Peabody Museum, in particular, has dedicated significant resources to developing practices for the care and treatment of sensitive collections that are rooted in active engagement with relevant stakeholders, including descendant communities.

I thought it would be helpful to understand how the daguerreotypes need to be treated, given their fragility. Because the daguerreotypes are at risk of mechanical, biological, and chemical deterioration, they are stored in a state of the art archival storage room with ideal temperature for preservation. Because of the fragility of daguerreotypes, conservators recommend using digital surrogates to limit handling of the originals. The Peabody Museum works closely with the photographic conservation team at Harvard’s Weissman Preservation Center to ensure the daguerreotypes in its collection are preserved and cared for in accordance with the highest professional standards. Because of their importance, condition, age, and rarity, the Weissman Preservation Center has recommended that viewing of all daguerreotypes in the Peabody Museum’s collections be limited to twice per year, which we abide by.”

Up to this day, the topic is still gaining national attention. Now, dozens of descendants of Professor Aggasiz have signed a letter and said it is time for Harvard to recognize Aggasiz for the racist he was and calling on the Ivy League school to hand over the images to Lanier.

Lanier’s attorney, Benjamin Crump spoke in a news conference today.

“A new path forward where the linear descendants of Aggasiz and Renty - the children of slaves and slave masters coming together to try and offer a better world for our children,” said Attorney Crump.

Lanier said she will be traveling to Louisiana on Friday to a plantation with Aggasiz’s family to share this story with hopes it will inspire people to learn more about their lineage and to take a stand for history.

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