Who Owns the Evidence of Slavery's Violence?

A lawsuit against Harvard University demands the return of an ancestor’s stolen image.

September 10, 2020

Thomas A. Foster

Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs & Social Sciences, Howard University

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Imagine that a man takes photos of your loved one, without their consent, and those images are then circulated to others. Now imagine that your loved one is naked in the photos. The man is a famous scholar and the images are given to a library. The library then allows the images to be circulated and republished for a small fee. One particularly revealing image eventually ends up on posters for an academic conference, widely circulated on the university campus and on the internet.

Now imagine that this actually happened, to the descendants of enslaved people. Because it has.

Today, it is not uncommon to see news accounts that document the illegal placement of hidden cameras in department store dressing rooms and public restrooms. But concerns about privacy are as old as the technology for capturing images and have ties to slavery that historians and archivists need to think about more deeply. The earliest photographic images were daguerreotypes, popularized in the antebellum era. And some of the earliest subjects of those daguerreotypes were of enslaved men and women, images taken and circulated without their consent.

These pictures were taken in the name of science. In 1850 Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz paid a South Carolina plantation owner to have enslaved men and women stripped naked and photographed. He believed the images would support his theories of white racial supremacy. These daguerreotypes are believed to be the first photographic images of enslaved people. Today, the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology holds the collection of images of the five men– Alfred, Fassena, Jack, Jem, Renty– and two women, Delia and Drana.

The images, and the rights to reproduce them, are still held by Harvard University. In 2019, Renty’s descendants filed a lawsuit against Harvard to return the daguerreotypes to the families; students formed the Harvard Coalition to Free Renty to raise public awareness about the lawsuit. Although Lawrence Bacow, the president of Harvard, defends their circulation on the grounds that the images convey the humanity of those enslaved, like so many stolen items in our archives and museums, these images should be returned to their rightful owners.

I first learned about the images from Molly Rogers’s book, Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America (2010). At the time, I was conducting research for my book on sexual abuse and exploitation of enslaved men, Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men (2019). I paid $30 in fees to the Peabody Museum for the right to use the images.

Because the images are degrading, I chose not to have large ones, not to use them on the cover, and not to tweet them. I rationalized including them in the book because I was arguing for recognition of a topic and subject that has largely gone unacknowledged by historians: the sexual assault of enslaved men. Photography can be one form of that, and the exploitative images supported my argument that historians needed to examine a culture structured around sexual violence to understand the full experiences of enslaved people. Along with other examples of sexualized violations, images created and coerced by the force of enslavement illustrated quite the opposite of Agassiz’s view that people of African descent were inferior. Instead, they showed the humanity of enslaved people, and made visible the off-camera depravity of those who argued otherwise – enslavers, and white supremacists like Agassiz.

Months after publication, I learned about the lawsuit; and I learned that the families had never consented to the circulation of the images, or their continued presence in the archive. I discussed with my press our options for issuing another edition: I proposed removing the two images but keeping the discussion of them (the press agreed immediately.) I also contacted Tamara Lanier, a descendant and the plaintiff in the suit against Harvard. I shared a copy of the book with her and she encouraged me to keep the images in the book because she believes that the story of the daguerreotypes and of exploitation under slavery, need to be told.

We have no records from Jem and Alfred that can help us understand how they viewed their experience that day when they stood naked before a room full of people, facing a new device that could capture their images. However, we do know that enslaved people deeply resented all sexualized violence and interference in their intimate lives, and we can guess that there was no permission, explicit or implicit.

This case should not be perceived as an attack on those who preserve our history. As a scholar, I am grateful to archivists who maintain the records that we need to understand our past and ourselves. I would not argue that every generation be allowed to revisit donation agreements once they are made with archives. Yet most of these collections, unlike the Agassiz daguerreotypes, were freely given: many of the papers that I use in my research were donated by families who have at some point consented to their personal lives being combed through by strangers.

However, in cases where subjects cannot consent – children, adults without the capacity to understand, and yes, enslaved people – and when families have never consented to the donation of such images, we need to revisit and rethink how they are used. Most importantly, families should decide if they want photos of their ancestors circulating “to portray their humanity” – not universities,  archives, or authors.

As the nation is being called upon to fully recognize that Black lives matter, we must come to terms with our histories of enslavement and white supremacy, where today’s murderous violence against Black men and women began. That means coming to terms with everything that was stolen, including their images.

We owe as much to Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty – and to ourselves.

Thomas A. Foster is Associate Dean and Professor of History at Howard University. He is the author of Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men (University of Georgia, 2019). You can tweet with him @ThomasAFoster.

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