Who Owns the Evidence of Slavery’s Violence?

tags: slavery, African American history, Harvard, archives, privacy, Louis Agassiz

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.

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.

Read entire article at Public Seminar

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