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Mass. Superior Court Sets Date to Hear Emotional Distress Lawsuit Over Images of Enslaved People in Peabody Museum

Civil rights attorney Benjamin L. Crump, right, alongside Tamara K. Lanier at a press conference after a hearing in November 2021 before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston.
Civil rights attorney Benjamin L. Crump, right, alongside Tamara K. Lanier at a press conference after a hearing in November 2021 before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. By Raquel Coronell Uribe
By Jasmine Palma and Tess C. Wayland, Crimson Staff Writers

Amid a legal battle over Harvard’s possession of images of enslaved people, Middlesex County Superior Court is set to hear a revived emotional distress lawsuit on April 13 brought by Tamara K. Lanier against the University.

Lanier initially filed the lawsuit against Harvard in March 2019, alleging that the University was in wrongful possession of daguerreotype images — which are currently housed in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology — depicting two enslaved individuals, Renty and Delia, who she claims are her ancestors.

Though the lawsuit was dismissed by Middlesex County Superior Court in March 2021, Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in June 2022 that Lanier has grounds to sue Harvard for emotional distress, marking a partial overturning of the lower court’s decision. She then amended her initial complaint to include reckless, in addition to negligent, infliction of emotional distress in October 2022.

In December 2022, Harvard submitted a motion to dismiss Lanier’s emotional distress claim, arguing in a 75-page memorandum, including exhibits, that Lanier’s new motion realleged her previous claims — which were dismissed by the lower court. The University also argued that Lanier requested forms of relief, such as the restitution of the daguerreotypes, which were “plainly unavailable” for the claim of infliction of emotional distress.

“The remaining causes of action allow only the recovery of compensatory damages for emotional distress,” the motion reads. “Thus, Ms. Lanier’s other requests for relief should be stricken from the complaint.”

After Lanier filed a 153-page response a month later rebutting Harvard’s motion, the University filed a reply in February in support of their earlier motion.

Joshua D. Koskoff, one of Lanier’s attorneys, wrote in an email that the new motion is another effort for Harvard to “avoid its accountability.”

“The legal process is built on transparency and cooperation and that is what Tamara Lanier deserves,” Koskoff wrote. “Harvard says it didn’t do anything wrong, so it should be eager to get to the discovery process, but for some reason that doesn’t appear to be the case.”

Lanier characterized the Supreme Court’s June 2022 ruling as a “stinging indictment” of the University.

“What they also did was something we weren’t looking or asking for, but they opened the door for me to bring in emotional distress — for extreme outrageous and reckless infliction of emotional distress,” Lanier said, referring to the justices.

Lanier’s allegation of emotional distress stems in part from Harvard’s use of the daguerreotypes on a 2017 book cover and in promotional material for a 2014 conference, which were done without notifying Lanier.

University spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit.

Koskoff wrote that while the ongoing lawsuit allows Lanier to pursue some forms of restitution for emotional distress, they maintain that the University should return the daguerreotypes.

“There’s no resolution of this case that doesn’t involve their turning over control of the daguerreotypes to the family,” Koskoff wrote.

“As long as they remain in Harvard’s captivity, the daguerreotypes of Renty and Delia shine a blinding light of hypocrisy on everything that Harvard does with respect to its entanglement with slavery and white supremacy,” he added.

The April 13 court date marks more than four years since Lanier first filed suit.

“Renty and Delia have waited over 170 years for their day in court, so we can be patient,” Koskoff wrote.

Correction: April 18, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly described Tamara K. Lanier’s emotional distress claim as a charge.

—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at jasmine.palma@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Tess C. Wayland can be reached at tess.wayland@thecrimson.com.

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