FREE RENTY:  HISTORICAL CONTEXT AND JUSTIFICATION 

by Mark D. Marderosian of Cohen & Marderosian

Defendants (collectively “Harvard”) have moved to dismiss Ms. Lanier’s Complaint.  Succinctly stated, Harvard contends that: (1) Ms. Lanier has failed to assert a claim that’s facially viable under governing substantive law; and (2) even if the Complaint stated a viable claim against Harvard, any such claim is stale and subject to dismissal with prejudice on timeliness grounds.

This is a unique and potentially a very important case, whose historical antecedents require close examination.

 

To our knowledge this case presents the first civil dispute in our country’s history:

 

>  wherein the descendant of an African enslaved in the antebellum American South has sought repatriation of physical property – the images themselves (i.e., the “Renty-Delia Slave Images”) – whose true ownership resides not in Harvard, whose functionaries captured those images by force and without the subject’s consent – but always resided in the subjects of the Images themselves,

 

>  whose illegal enslavement prevented them from refusing their photographic capture and,

 

>  whom then-governing law viewed as sub-human livestock without civil rights.

 

 As importantly, it’s unquestionably the first case in which a direct descendant of an African-born slave toiling in the antebellum American South has laid claim to an historical artifact, which depicts her noble ancestor during his enslavement. This Court can do nothing to remedy the incalculable harm done to those long-deceased slaves, but this case presents it with an absolutely unique opportunity to do substantial justice (albeit in modest measure) that will resonate across three American centuries.

 

The plaintiff’s core claim, the ancient replevin doctrine, sounds in equity, which makes the history of the Renty-Delia Slave Images – the circumstances surrounding their creation and purpose – indispensable to a just resolution here.1 What follows is important both in assessing whether Ms. Lanier has stated a claim and if that claim is timely. Consequently, Ms. Lanier respectfully submits this historical examination in opposition to Harvard’s dismissal motion. The historical setting in which Tammy’s rights arose frames her claims by revealing their origins and associated motives of the players, most importantly Harvard’s motives in commissioning the Images.

 

Harvard reflexively challenges Lanier’s claims as time-barred. This perfunctory argument ignores many facts that compress the past century and a half into a very short time-frame indeed. By pleading timeliness as a dismissal ground, Harvard has made it mandatory to explore its rich and active history of: (1) advancing White Supremacist “science” to rationalize slavery (arguably a continuing tort given its recalcitrant refusal to acknowledge plaintiff’s rights); and (2) its subsequent concealment, public obfuscation and dissembling about the Renty-Delia Slave Images, which prevented Ms. Lanier from conducting the research that might have revealed her legal rights sooner. As explored more thoroughly below, Harvard buried those Images deep in its archives, which precludes consideration of the intervening century and a half in the Court’s timeliness calculus.

 

It’s uncontroverted that those Images resided for over 120 years secreted away in the endless stacks of the sprawling Peabody Museum of Natural History (the “Peabody Museum”). Harvard (deliberately, we believe) buried them deep at the close of the Civil War and within just days of President Lincoln’s assassination – until a dedicated Harvard librarian found them almost 120 years later, in 1976 and began researching their provenance. Rather than rewarding her initiative and skillful research (which skills Harvard surely considers pre-requisite to a librarian’s professional competence), Harvard abruptly terminated that enterprising young scholar’s employment and, upon information and belief, placed the Renty-Delia Slave Images in secure storage in the Peabody Museum like a dirty family secret. Apparently, that hapless librarian deduced and was terminated to protect what Ms. Lanier has come to conclude as well: Harvard still thinks it has a secret. Now that ugly secret is out, however, and it’s time to confront the truth. Not until 2012 did it openly acknowledge possession of the Renty-Delia Slave Images, while continuing to feign ignorance about their origins.

     There’s no small irony in the fact that when a slaveholder invoked civil process to retrieve a fugitive slave in antebellum America, the claim sounded in replevin – which enabled the slave-holder to reassert physical dominion over his escaped human chattel – whom governing law viewed as personal property indistinguishable in principle from any other beast-of-burden. Now the descendant of a slave asserts the same claim seeking to recover of the photographic images of her ancestors, which were created by Harvard to prove of the subject's inherent "racial inferiority" vis-a-vis Whites.

Author's Note:  The history of the Lanier v. Harvard case is so compelling and informative, those who are interested in the larger struggle are encouraged to read the entire document.  I feel strongly that it may aid in educating our diverse constituencies on the irrefutable facts and core theories of the case.

 

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