The Day – The documentary ‘Free Renty’ screened at La Garde on Thursday

Award-winning documentarian David Grubin looked at the 1850 daguerreotype image of the enslaved African Renty and was drawn to its story and how his great-great-great-granddaughter, Tamara Lanier of Norwich, fights against Harvard University to take possession of his photographic images.

Then he met Lanier: “She’s so dynamic,” he said.

Grubin created the documentary “Free Renty, Lanier v. Harvard,” which follows Lanier’s years-long efforts to trace his ancestry, his shock at a friend’s discovery that footage of “Papa Renty” was online, and his anger that Harvard used the iconic images and was charging others a fee to use them.

She learned the origin of these daguerreotypes in the scientific studies of the famous Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz to “prove” that Africans were inferior to whites.

Harvard initially disputed her claim to be Renty’s direct descendant, and although later acknowledging her relationship to Renty and Delia, her enslaved daughter, still refused her request to obtain the footage. Lanier sued Harvard in March 2019 in a case still pending in Massachusetts courts. Harvard says Renty and Delia’s treatment was “abhorrent” but argues Lanier has no ownership of the photos.

The New London NAACP will present a special session of the documentary at the Garde Arts Center in New London at 7 p.m. Thursday, followed by a panel discussion with Lanier, his lawyers, Josh Koskoff and Preston Tisdale, former New York Times editor Jill Ellen Abramson and possibly Grubin. Tickets are $15. Public Engagement Editor for the Day, Karen Florin, will moderate the roundtable.

The documentary, which premiered in online screenings in October 2021, made the rounds at film festivals, colleges and special screenings. Grubin said discussions with the public are always interesting.

“People are jumping right into the conversation about reparations and legal issues,” Grubin said. “There are usually questions about how I made the film. This film directly addresses the question: “What do you think? ” It’s awesome. You want people to engage with Tammy’s story. Who owns the images and why can Harvard keep them?

Grubin learned of Lanier’s case several years ago, when his cousin, attorney Mike Koskoff, called and said he had “an interesting case” the filmmaker might want to pursue.

“It was clear this was going to be important,” Grubin said. “As a filmmaker, you don’t know where this is going to take you. You see an image of Renty, and you’re immediately drawn in, but I needed to meet Tamara.

Mike Koskoff has died, but his son, Josh Koskoff, along with famed civil rights attorney Benjamin L. Crump, who led the legal team for George Floyd’s family, and Tisdale have pursued the case.

Grubin’s cameras accompanied Lanier to South Carolina, where Renty and Delia were enslaved on a plantation. Lanier and the film crew met with the founders of the new International African American Museum which will open in January in Charleston, South Carolina. Cameras captured a room full of lawyers discussing Lanier’s trial.

Lanier regrets that a recorded segment of his meeting with his friend Richard Morrison from Norwich was cut from the final production. Lanier said in 2010 that she was beginning her ancestry search to find “Papa Renty”, the subject of many family histories. Morrison, then owner of the Ice Cream Shop on Main Street, Norwich, offered to help with genealogical research. Morrison came across pictures of Renty on the internet.

“I went there weeks later,” Lanier recalls, “and he said, ‘Where were you? I found your dad Renty on the Internet. I said, ‘yeah that’s right.’

Agassiz had traveled to Columbia, SC in 1850 and selected Renty and Delia and five other slaves from several plantations. He then commissioned a local daguerreotype studio to take images of them, undressed and in various poses and angles as part of his later debunked theory that Africans were inferior to whites.

Harvard’s Peabody Essex Museum discovered the daguerreotypes about 40 years ago, and Lanier says Harvard took advantage of it, charging licensing fees for historical or educational use and using them in the university’s own publications.

Lanier filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Middlesex County in Massachusetts. Lanier’s attorneys made impassioned arguments that Renty and Delia were forced to strip, degraded, and treated as less than human. Attorney Josh Koskoff argued that because criminals can’t keep stolen items and child pornographers can’t keep illicit photos of children, Harvard shouldn’t be able to keep forced images of Renty and Delia.

Harvard countered that the subjects of the photographic images never owned the images, and that Lanier waited too long after Harvard rejected his ownership claims to sue, missing the statute of limitations. Middlesex Court agreed and on March 1, 2021 granted Harvard’s motion to dismiss the case.

Lanier appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which heard oral argument Nov. 1. Lanier’s attorneys reiterated their emotional pleas that Lanier, not Harvard, control the use and distribution of the images. Harvard attorney Anton Metlitsky said the case should not be based on whether Harvard is the rightful owner, but whether Lanier has legal ownership of the footage. Harvard claims not.

Crump rejected Harvard’s argument that the university is a better steward of images for the benefit of historians and educators around the world.

“It is not appropriate to say what Ms. Lanier would do, as if this black woman could not work in conjunction with a museum to be able to protect the First Amendment in order to further educate people,” Crump said during the interview. November 1 hearing.

The court was supposed to rule within 130 days, but on March 14 judges issued an order removing the 130-day period to allow more time to consider the case. The parties are still awaiting a decision. Even if they rule in favor of Lanier, the judges said it would not grant Lanier possession of the daguerreotypes, but only allow a trial on the merits of the case.

Grubin did not wait for the court’s decision to complete the documentary.

“There’s a way that we can eventually put in the final verdict, but you get the story in the movie,” Grubin said.

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Christy J. Olson