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Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Harvard University has profited from and defended slavery and the associated ideologies of white supremacy, including through the university’s “cultural” institutions. Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology provides a clear example.

The Peabody Museum demonstrates the racist and extractive practices of museums and academia. The Peabody Museum holds the daguerreotypes of Renty, an African born in the Congo, and his daughter Delia – both of whom were enslaved on a plantation in South Carolina. Created in 1850, these daguerreotypes were used by one of Harvard University’s prominent racist ideologues and scientists, Louis Agassiz, to argue for white supremacy and anti-Black racism. Agassiz, a professor and biologist at Harvard University, promoted the theory of polygenesis – the idea that Blacks (and other “races” deemed inferior by white supremacists) lack a common ancestor with whites, and effectively constitute a different “species." Polygenesis provided a convenient "justification" for slavery.

Over the years, Harvard has been using these daguerreotypes to signal its scholarly and cultural authority. Harvard has insidiously used these images to depict itself as an institution that cares about addressing the harms and afterlives of slavery (of course, Harvard won’t address its present complicity in colonialism, incarceration, policing, and ethnic cleansing/displacement).

These extractive practices of Harvard and Peabody have been challenged by the Free Renty! campaign.

Free Renty! – challenging Harvard's racist “property right”

One of Renty’s descendants, Tamara Lanier, has called out Harvard for its extractive and racist use of Renty and Delia’s images, and demanded that the university give her the daguerreotypes so that Renty and Delia can finally rest. Harvard has refused.

Moreover, Harvard’s prominent scholars have participated in the university efforts to market itself as an enlightened institution that is addressing complicity in slavery, but failed to support the demand for restitution coming from the descendants of the enslaved. For example, Henry Louis Gates, a prominent scholar of African American history at Harvard, has participated in the university’s conference on “reckoning” with slavery’s “legacies” – which used Renty’s image for marketing purposes – but has marginalized Lanier’s demand with the false nuance that elite academia is so good at producing. Writing in an edited volume that discusses the daguerreotypes, Gates wrote: “Tamara Lanier [claims] that she is a descendant of Renty…But, in a larger sense, can any one person be the heir of these photographs, or does the responsibility for them fall to all of us to protect them as archival relics of history, to be studied, pondered, and reckoned with?” While Gates also wrote that the university should “identify, engage, and support direct descendants,” he didn’t call for restitution – and Lanier says that Gates hasn’t even returned her emails.   

In March 2019, Lanier has sued Harvard University and unsurprisingly, the university leaned on the condescending, “white savior” argument that it should be the one responsible for these images. (In 2021, a Massachusetts court dismissed Lanier’s suit, with the claim that “the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be.”)

But as Lanier and her allies argue, Harvard’s extractive use of these images is merely another form of subjugation and extraction, an extension of the oppression experienced by Lanier’s ancestors under formal chattel slavery. This is not something that Anglo-American “property law” can acknowledge; it is, in fact, something that the law is designed to obscure. As Ariella Aïsha Azoulay has written:

Harvard came to “possess” these photographs through a cultural logic of wealth, property, and ownership that flows directly from slavery and preserves its lingering presence in our own era....We have the opportunity now—amid a wealth of scholarship and activism on the entanglement of photography, museums, and slavery, and based on increasing numbers of restitution cases—to redress what Renty and his relatives were deprived of in the 1850s. We have the opportunity for the unique imprint of Renty’s presence on a silver plate to finally find its place where it belongs—with his family.

Other writers have joined the call to Free Renty! and called on Harvard to give up the daguerreotypes.

The poet Fred Moten, who wrote this in support of Lanier’s demand for restitution:

It is only right and righteous that the dispossessed now insist on the radical dispossession of American law, American art, American man and the American archive. At stake is what it is to repudiate being held in perpetuity against the force of perpetual disruption that these photographs must always also bear. Such being-held is broken when Lanier breathes on the photographs and breathes in the air they breathe on her. The practice in which she engages is, in this regard, not only one of repudiation, and restitution, but also one of mutual resuscitation. In that sharing of breath she and her ancestors share something more and something else. The refusal to be owned by those who cannot own, which is borne as irreducibly social existence, persists not in preservation and display but in animated, animative seeing-with, which is felt and passed, by all who recognize their kin, from breath to breath and hand to hand, until the photographs disappear.

The scholar Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman has also called for the daguerreotypes to be restituted, and explained how Harvard's possession of these daguerreotypes constitutes a form of enslavement:

By retaining the daguerreotypes of seven enslaved black people, including Renty and Delia, Harvard University perpetuates the violences of racial slavery in this country: financial accumulation via the instrumentalization of enslaved bodies and persons; the dispossession and wonton display of the bodies of the enslaved; the prioritization of legalistic, proprietary claims to the enslaved over the rights and bonds of human kinship; the severance of African American familial ties and the obliteration of African American familial legacies… At issue in Ms. Tamara Lanier’s suit is an attempt of one African American family to secure justice on behalf of their enslaved ancestors.  In the strongest possible terms, I request that the Court repatriate Renty and Delia to their living relatives, specifically Tamara Lanier, and in so doing put an end after nearly two centuries to their enslavement.

Students at Harvard University have also formed the Harvard Coalition to Free Renty, in support of Lanier’s demands.

Meanwhile, the Peabody Museum continues to present itself as a benevolent and "ethical steward" of human remains and objects, stating on its page that "Euroamerican anthropology museums are a product of imperialism and colonial expansion that continue to perpetuate inequities today. As such, they reflect Eurocentric perspectives and biases on the acquisition, ownership, use and understanding of the cultural belongings, human remains and documents that are redefined as collections in museum contexts." The museum and the university can easily produce such words, so long as it doesn't conflict with Harvard's privatization of human remains and objects obtained through colonialism and slavery.

Profiting from enslaved and colonized bodies

The daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia are merely one example of the many ways in which universities and museums continue to profit from slavery and colonialism. In June 2022, a leaked report by Harvard’s “Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections,” reported that Harvard holds “the remains of 7,000 Native Americans and enslaved people.” These remains, according to the Washington Post, “are primarily housed” at Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

Other Harvard-affiliated institutions similarly hoard and parade stolen human remains – see entry on Mass General Hospital and the mummy it has been exhibiting and desecrating.

The racist and violent use of such remains is critical to cultural institutions and to the flow of elite academia’s “knowledge production,” and Harvard isn’t exceptional in this regard. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology has been holding the extensive skull collection of Samuel G. Morton – another notorious scientist that, like Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, has promoted white supremacist theories – which includes skulls from Indigenous and enslaved people from around the world, obtained by conquest and war. After pressure from activists and university staff and students, the University of Pennsylvania has announced in April 2021 that plans to repatriate the skulls.


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