A woman who claims she is descended from slaves who were photographed in 1850 for Harvard University was granted the ability to sue the school for her emotional distress, which she says has been caused by seeing the pictures widely distributed.
According to NBC News:
[The state’s Supreme Judicial Court] concluded the Norwich resident and her family can plausibly make a case for suffering “negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress” from Harvard and remanded that part of their claim to the state Superior Court.
The judges said the university failed to contact Lanier when it used one of the images on a book cover and prominently featured it in materials for a campus conference — even after she’d reached out about her ancestral ties.
“In sum, despite its duty of care to her, Harvard cavalierly dismissed her ancestral claims and disregarded her requests, despite its own representations that it would keep her informed of further developments,” the ruling states.
But the high court upheld the lower court’s ruling that the photos are the property of the photographer who took them and not the subject themselves.
Lanier’s attorney said Thursday’s ruling was a “historic win” that marks one of the first times a court has ruled that descendants of enslaved people can seek accountability for what their ancestors endured.
“Harvard is not the rightful owner of these photos and should not profit from them,” Josh Koskoff said in a statement. “As Tamara Lanier and her family have said for years, it is time for Harvard to let Renty and Delia come home.”
Lanier is asking for the original photos from Harvard, saying they were being exploited for profit despite being taken against the subjects’ wills. Harvard’s says the university is reviewing the ruling, but added that the originals are in archival storage due to their fragility.