The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has ruled that the alleged descendent of slaves photographed in 1850 may sue Harvard University for its use of the photos. The plaintiff seeks restitution for Harvard’s use of the photos as well as damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The facts, as summarized by the court, are as follows:
In 1850, the Harvard professor Louis Agassiz arranged to have daguerreotypes made of Renty Taylor and Delia Taylor, who were enslaved on a plantation in South Carolina. Renty was ordered to disrobe. His daughter, Delia, was stripped naked to the waist. Their images were then captured in four daguerreotypes. These daguerreotypes were later used by Agassiz in an academic publication to support polygenism, a pseudoscientific racist theory for which Agassiz, a prominent scientist, was a vocal proponent. Identifying herself as a descendant of Renty and Delia Taylor, the plaintiff, Tamara Lanier, contacted Harvard University seeking recognition of her ancestral connection to Renty and Delia and requesting information regarding Harvard’s past and intended use of the daguerreotypes. When the university dismissed Lanier’s claim of descent from Renty and Delia and ignored her requests, continuing to use and display images of Renty without informing her, she brought this action against the defendants, the President and Fellows of Harvard College, the Harvard Board of Overseers, Harvard University, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology…seeking relief for emotional distress and other injuries, as well as restitution of the daguerreotypes to her.
The complaint was dismissed by the trial judge because, in the judge’s opinion, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that she was entitled to relief. The decision was appealed to the SJC which reversed, in part, the lower court’s ruling. According to the SJC,
Because we conclude that the alleged facts, taken as true, plausibly support claims for negligent and indeed reckless infliction of emotional distress, we vacate the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress and remand the case to the Superior Court to allow the plaintiff to amend her complaint to incorporate allegations of reckless infliction of emotional distress.