(CNN)An enslaved African man named Renty and his daughter Delia were stripped and forced to pose for images commissioned by a Swiss-born Harvard professor who espoused a theory that Africans and African-Americans were inferior to whites.
The descendants of slaves want Harvard to stop using iconic photos of their relatives
Nearly 170 years later, Renty and Delia "remain enslaved" by the Ivy League university, which is being accused of the "wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation" of the photographs, according to a Massachusetts lawsuit filed by Tamara Lanier, a direct descendant demanding that Harvard turn over the images, recognize her lineage and pay unspecified damages.
"One of the most basic foundations of slavery was to destroy the black concept of family," said Ben Crump, one of Lanier's attorneys. "This is not just a lawsuit for Renty and his descendants. In many ways, it's a lawsuit for all the descendants of slaves in America."
The lawsuit reads like the outline for a historical novel, a stark portrait of "opportunism, greed, and profound moral abdication by one of the country's most revered educational institutions," the complaint said.
It centers on what are believed to be the earliest known photographic images of slaves, which were commissioned in 1850 by Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, a controversial figure who supported polygenism -- the idea that humans evolved from multiple distinct ancestral types -- and lent "celebrity status and 'scientific' legitimacy to the poisonous myth of white racial superiority and championing the vital importance of separations of races," according to the suit.
In a statement, Harvard said Wednesday it had "not yet been served, and with that is in no position to comment on this lawsuit filing."
Lanier, who refers to her great-great-great grandfather as "Papa Renty," said she learned from years of research and oral history from her family that he was born in Africa, kidnapped by slave merchants and enslaved on a South Carolina plantation. He taught himself and other slaves to read and led secret Bible readings and study on the plantation.
"Starting with my mother who, throughout my childhood and not only my childhood but my children's childhood, would often talk about our family history ... and she would start with a person who she fondly referred to as Papa Renty, the black African," Lanier said Wednesday.
"She spoke with great pride about Papa Renty. She talked about him and his ability to read. He would read the Bible to people, and that he taught others to read and he was kind of this well-respected community person, and when she spoke of Papa Renty, it was with a great fondness."
She said she hopes to lift the pall of inferiority and invisibility that has hung over the life of her great-great-great grandfather.
"I want his dignity restored," Lanier said. "I want them to tell the true story of who he is, and I want them to acknowledge their complicity."
Known as daguerreotypes, the images of Renty and Delia were taken in a South Carolina photo studio. Renty was stripped naked and photographed from every angle "without consent, dignity, or compensation," according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court. Delia, stripped to the waist, posed next to him.
The images were long forgotten until an employee of Harvard's Peabody Museum discovered them in the museum's attic in 1976, the lawsuit said.
The employee, Ellie Reichlin, voiced concern for the families of the men and women in the images but Harvard made no effort to locate their descendants. The suit said Harvard has people who see the photos sign a contract and "pay a hefty 'licensing' fee'" to reproduce them.
Lanier was the chief probation officer in Norwich, Connecticut, when, in 2011, she wrote a letter to former Harvard President Drew Faust. She provided information detailing her ancestry and belief she was a direct descendant of Renty and Delia, the suit said.
She had started documenting Renty's life and connection to her family in earnest after the death of her mother, Mattye. Lanier said she scoured South Carolina libraries and archives and online genealogy sources.
But Faust's reply to her was "evasive and vague, making no mention of Ms. Lanier's invitation to discuss her heritage," according to the suit.
Lanier continued gathering evidence of her heritage and, in 2016, contacted the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, with her story. She went to Cambridge for an interview but later learned that her story would not be told because of "concerns the Peabody Museum has raised," the suit said.
The suit claims that over the years Harvard continued to use the images as a source of income, including use of the iconic images to sell in 2017 the 13th anniversary edition of "From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery." The book has Renty's image on the cover and sells for $40, according to the suit.
Also in 2017, Harvard hosted a national academic conference titled Universities and Slavery: Bound by History. The conference program referred to Renty as "anonymous" although Lanier had already told university officials he was her great-great-great grandfather.
The suit claims the photos of Renty and Delia were taken a few years after Harvard had recruited Agassiz, whose field of study was a branch of zoology that grouped living things based on anatomical characteristics and hierarchical order. After being named head of Harvard's newly created Lawrence School of Science, Agassiz became an advocate for polygenism -- which the suit said was used to justify the enslavement of black people and, later, their segregation.
Agassiz realized that he could use daguerreotypes, an early photographic process, to document "evidence of the otherness of the black body," according to the suit. At the B.F. Taylor plantation in Columbia, South Carolina, Renty and Delia were among several slaves he selected to be photographed. Agassiz searched for "racially 'pure' slaves born in Africa," whose numbers were dwindling since the 1807 ban on the importation of slaves.
"To Agassiz, Renty and Delia were nothing more than research specimens," the suit said. "The violence of compelling them to participate in a degrading exercise designed to prove their own subhuman status would not have occurred to him, let alone mattered."
In an article titled "The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races," published one month after the photos were taken, Agassiz described Africans as "submissive, obsequious, (and) imitative" and said they possessed "a peculiar indifference to the advantages afforded by civilized society."
The lawsuit said, "It was an act of both love and resistance that Renty and Delia's kin kept their memories and stories alive for well over a century. It is unconscionable that Harvard will not allow Ms. Lanier to, at long last, bring Renty and Delia home."