All her life, Tamara Lanier heard stories about an enslaved ancestor named Renty. A few years ago, the Norwich resident started researching her family history and has since unearthed genealogical evidence she believes proves she is a descendant of Renty, an African-born slave who labored on a South Carolina plantation. Now, the retired state chief probation officer is on a mission to reclaim a piece of her legacy. She’s suing Harvard University for ownership of photos taken in 1850 of Renty and his daughter Delia. The daguerreotype images were commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born Harvard professor and pioneering zoologist. They were part of Agassiz’s efforts to support the racist theory of polygenesis, which argued that black and white people descended from different origins.
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I understand your mother would tell stories about Renty.
The thing that she was most proud of was the fact that Renty was literate. And not only did he embrace literacy, but he would teach others to read if they had a desire to do so.
Did she talk about how he learned to read?
She told me about The Blue Back Speller [a popular spelling book published by Connecticut’s Noah Webster], which the slaves referred to as The Blue Back Webster. One of the things she said was finishing it — it wasn’t a class, but the way the slaves phrased it was “finishing” — she said finishing The Blue Back Webster was like what we would consider a Ph.D. today in terms of what the value of that meant to enslaved people. Because Papa Renty finished a Blue Back Webster, that made him kind of a respected person.
And other enslaved people also learned to read this way?
Typically we’re taught that slaves were illiterate. Based on my oral history, there’s a part of me that wants to embrace the fact that that’s questionable. My family knew how to read, but that was something they couldn’t publicly talk about.
Prior to filing a lawsuit against Harvard you reached out to them. What happened?
Throughout the piecing of this together, I would routinely reach out to Harvard and say, “Hey, I have great news. I know who this man is in the image. I know his history.” Most important to me was the literacy piece, because not only was that so important to my mom, but it also became important to me because of Louis Agassiz’s narrative, his propaganda. … Renty’s literacy turns Agassiz’s science on its head. I asked that they tell the true story as to who this man was and not leave the false narrative of Louis Agassiz’s unaddressed or unchecked. I would say that often and never got any real response from Harvard.
As part of this saga you ultimately connected with some of Agassiz’s descendants who have publicly supported your case against Harvard. How did that come about?
There was a part of me that was very sensitive to attacks and criticism. When these stories would run in the newspaper, I would say 95 percent of the comments and the feedback were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, but then there was this small percentage of people who were just hateful. Even though they were just a small percentage of the responses, that’s what resonated with me: the hate instead of the encouragement. I remember thinking, Why am I trying to find Louis Agassiz’s grandchildren? His hatred was so infectious, was so toxic, that my fear was that he would have poisoned his children. So I stopped looking.
Then a New York Times story ran about your lawsuit with Harvard, right?
When the New York Times story broke, the positive support was even greater. Ninety-eight percent of the responses were so encouraging, but at some point I considered deleting all my social media because the hatred was so ugly. I came across a message from Marian [Shaw Moore], a great-great-great-granddaughter of Louis Agassiz. I didn’t know whether this was another ploy, or if this was a legitimate attempt by one of his descendants to reach out to me. Something said, “Give her a call.” When she said “hello,” I could tell in the patience in her voice that she was legitimate. Then as we talked I was just amazed. As she described more about who she was and who her family is, I was really floored. Her entire family, they have lived lives of giving back and just giving in general. Everything that she has done, her sisters have done, her family has done, is about uplifting others and encouraging others. We couldn’t be closer than sisters at this point.