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Woman Suing Harvard Over Slave Photos Gets Key Support

CAMBRIDGE (CBS/AP) — The haunting photo of an African slave known as Papa Renty is at the center of a dispute over whether it's a personal photo belonging to the family of Tamara Lanier or Harvard University.

"When I first saw that image, it was a validation of all the stories I heard as a child," said Lanier.

Papa Renty. (Photo Credit: The Lanier family)

She is the great, great, great-granddaughter of Renty, whose photo was taken, long with his daughter Delia, in 1850 by renowned Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz as part of a study arguing that black people are inferior to white people.

Lanier has found unusual allies in a lawsuit against Harvard - the descendants of Louis Agassiz who are renouncing their great, great, great-grandfather's study, saying it's time to right history.

"Do we think Renty and Delia consented to be part of a project to justify their own enslavement? Of course not," said Suzannah Moore a descendent of Agassiz at a press conference on the Harvard campus.

Tamara Lanier
Tamara Lanier at Harvard University, June 20, 2019. (WBZ-TV)

The families spoke by a building that bears the Agassiz name. The photographs are stored in a museum on campus as cultural artifacts.

"I don't think Harvard has the right to have absolute control and authority of the images, given the circumstances of their origin," said Lanier.

Together, the families delivered a letter to the Office of the President signed by 42 descendants of Louis Agassiz in support of the lawsuit demanding Harvard turn over the photos, claiming the University is profiting from them.

"It's surreal," said Lanier. "When you think about the totality of the story and the fact we have linear descendants of Renty and the linear descendants of Louis Agassiz standing in solidarity."

Lanier, of Norwich, Conn., wants Harvard to give her the images and pay unspecified damages.

A Harvard spokeswoman in an emailed statement Thursday said while she cannot comment on pending litigation, the school takes great care of the images.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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