The Sunday Post & Courier had a fascinating article about nude daguerreotypes of South Carolina slaves discovered in the attic of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1974.
“She grasped a case and unlocked its tiny latch. With that simple flip, they released a genie of history, a long-lost story of humanity and inhumanity that stretched from the esteemed halls of Harvard to the dirt and bolls of South Carolina’s cotton plantations.
Each of the 15 identical cases contained a daguerreotype, an early form of photography from the mid-1800s. Beneath glass and faux-gold frames, a lone Black person stared into the camera, stony-faced and resolute, except one young woman whose eyes appeared blurred with tears.
All the people, photographed portrait-style and beautifully lit, were partially or entirely naked.
Most were middle-aged or older men. Two were women who sat in fluffy antebellum dresses, hands clasped in their laps, dress tops pulled down to fully expose their breasts.
In other images, men stood fully nude, barefoot on a handsome rug in front of a wooden stool. Each was photographed facing front, then from the side, then from behind.
They didn’t appear undressed for pornographic purposes. The pictures felt oddly clinical.
What on earth were these?”
Here’s a link to the full article at Post & Courier.com. Unfortunately, non-subscribers won’t be able to get past the paper’s paywall. We understand that’s frustrating to non-subscribers. And we also appreciate the paper needing to protect (and profit from) its content. So we went online looking for more and other sources of information on this fascinating story.
Here’s some more information on what has developed into a 21st century lawsuit to determine who owns the rights to the images…a lawsuit Harvard is fighting.
The P&C article goes on to describe how the daguerreotypes were central to a pseudo-science theory of the 19th century called polygenesis, the belief that humans weren’t all the same species, and that white people were superior.
One of the major proponents of that theory was Louis Agassiz, a Swiss born biologist and geologist recognized as an innovative and prodigious scholar of Earth’s natural history. Agassiz grew up in Switzerland. He received Doctor of Philosophy and medical degrees at Erlangen and Munich, respectively. After studying with Cuvier and Humboldt in Paris, Agassiz was appointed professor of natural history at the University of Neuchâtel. He emigrated to the United States in 1847 after visiting Harvard University. He went on to become professor of zoology and geology at Harvard, to head its Lawrence Scientific School, and to found its Museum of Comparative Zoology. This information is from Wikipedia. CLICK HERE FOR MORE OF THE WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE ON AGASSIZ
An 1850 trip to Charleston to speak at the third meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was the catalyst thrusting Agassiz a racial debate The main topic of the meeting in Charleston: the unity or diversity of species.
Utilizing contacts he made at the Charleston meeting, Agassiz commissioned the daguerreotypes of South Carolina slaves (all from the Columbia area) as part of his research to prove his belief that whites and blacks were totally different species.
Polygenesis was scientifically debunked with Charles Darwin’s work “Origin of the Species” playing a large role.
According to American Heritage magazine, “Agassiz’ theory was discredited by the mid-1860’s, but the daguerreotypes survived; and it is ironic that these pictures, made to demonstrate the supposed inferiority of their subjects, instead conferred a kind of immortality on the men and women we know only as Renty and Delia, Jem and Jack.
It was no consolation for the humiliation they endured both as slaves and as objects of scientific curiosity, but a rare gain for those who now encounter these people as memorably real survivors of a painful epoch.”
The lawsuit mentioned above (and in the Post & Courier article) is being pursued by Tamara Lanier, who is suing Harvard University over slave images that she says belong to her family. Although Harvard is fighting the lawsuit, Lanier has the support of many of Agassiz’ descendents, an irony pointed out in THIS ARTICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE.
This story has many facets…legal, moral, the role later debunked pseudoscience has played in American society and more. And it’s still playing out 170 years later.
The question of who owns history…..more specifically what ownership rights do museums have for historical materials….is playing out all over the world. And the question is increasingly being answered in the courts.
UPDATE: March 6, 2021 To see the verdict in Lanier’s lawsuit CLICK HERE