The first building I ever stepped foot in as an admitted student at Harvard was the Agassiz Visitor Center. I never gave the building name much thought; it was named after some old white man, I assumed, like the rest of the buildings.
By Adiah Price-Tucker 22' and Samantha O'Sullivan 22' Aug 27, 2020
The first building I ever stepped foot in as an admitted student at Harvard was the Agassiz Visitor Center. I never gave the building name much thought; it was named after some old white man, I assumed, like the rest of the buildings. And as I navigated my way around campus that weekend, several other names became imprinted on my mind. Lowell. Grays. Mather.
It was not until well into my first year as a student did I learn that all of these names were tied to the heinous legacy of slavery.
I first learned of the Lanier v. Harvard case from a headline in the New York Times. “Your Ancestors were Slaves. Who owns the Photos of them?”. Reading Tamara Lanier’s story, I was shocked. Shocked that I had not heard of the lawsuit before (where was the outrage among the student body??), and shocked that Harvard- the epicenter of “Veritas”- was itself obscuring the daguerreotypes and the horrendous history behind them.
My research into Louis Aggasiz, the “scientist” who commissioned the nonconsensual, naked photographs of Renty, Delia, and other enslaved people, was sickening. Aggasiz commissioned the photographs in an attempt to prove Africans were an inferior race, using rhetoric based in white supremacist pseudoscience.
Perhaps then, I rationed, this was simply a practice of the distant past. That Harvard denounced this pseudoscience and racist rhetoric was a sign my institution was moving in the right direction and attempting to make amends. However, upon meeting Tamara Lanier in the format of a Generational African American Students Association panel on Social Reparations, I learned that Harvard’s involvement was much more contemporary than I had previously thought. Harvard, in recent years, has profited off of these images, and as a result, continues to profit off of the legacies of slavery.
There is no way to undo the evils that Louis Agassiz, and similar Harvard “scholars” have done throughout history, but Harvard can, and must, begin to make amends. The first of which must be surrendering the images to Renty’s descendant, Tamara Lanier, and immediately changing the names of Agassiz Center, Mather House, and all buildings bearing the family names of slave owners, segregationists, and white supremacists. Even then, we will have only scratched the surface, but it is a necessary start.
As a student at Harvard, I started my journey full of wonder and awe at the institution known the world over for its high quality education, research, and, most importantly, commitment to Veritas - truth. Unfortunately, the more time I have spent time on campus, the more disillusioned I have become with Harvard’s claimed ideology. As a first year, I walked past an unassuming yellow building in the famous Harvard Yard every day. It wasn’t until about six months into the year that I happened to come across a very small plaque on the side of the building commemorating two slaves that lived there. A place where people who looked like me were forced to toil a century-and-a-half ago is now an administrative building - the plaque outside so small that people can walk past it without knowing its heinous history (like I did).
Like all of the United States, Harvard’s ties to slavery run deep and it is time for this institution to make amends for its involvement more than in name only. Though Harvard claims to reject its racist past, its contributions to the contemporary maintenance of white supremacy and anti-blackness only begins with holding these photos hostage. Therefore, the least Harvard can do is emancipate Renty and Delia, more than a century after they were born into slavery. Harvard is still treating these Black bodies like property and directly profiting from them via ‘copyright’. At a moment when the phrase “Black Lives Matter” echoes across this nation, it is high time for Harvard to prove to its students (especially its Black students) and the world that it agrees.
Beyond questions of politics and public relations, Lanier v. Harvard, at its core, is about what is right. For an institution to claim the “truth” as its motto, it needs to be able to address and make amends with the dark realities of its past. This starts with finally freeing Renty and Delia and ends with divestment from systems that contemporarily profit off of and harm Black people.
Though Renty and Delia couldn’t, I can only hope that soon the Lanier family will be able to shout the words of the old negro spiritual: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
About the Authors: Samantha O'Sullivan serves as President of GAASA and Adiah Price-Tucker serves as Political Action Chair.
About GAASA: The Generational African American Students Association. (GAASA) is a space created to foster community on Harvard’s campus and to raise awareness/spark social change around issues pertaining to the heinous legacy of slavery in the United States.
Follow GASSA's Facebook HERE