NORWICH — When her mother died in 2010, Tamara Lanier embarked on a quest to investigate stories her mother told about her ancestors.
Lanier lives in Norwich and retired in October as chief probation officer at Norwich court. She believes that one of her ancestors was an African-born slave named Renty, whose photo, taken in 1850 on a South Carolina plantation, has become world famous as a symbol of racism.
The photo was one of a series commissioned by Swiss-born scientist Louis Agassiz, then a professor at Harvard University, in an attempt to prove his theory — soon debunked by Charles Darwin’s 1859 theory of evolution — that Africans were inferior to Europeans and that they originated as a separate species.
Renty’s photo and those of 16 other slaves taken as part of Agassiz’s study were rediscovered in an attic at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1976 by staff member Elinor Reichlin and remain there today.
“The daguerreotypes (an early type of photo) are in our collection,” Pamela Gerardi, the museum’s director of external relations, said last week. “They’re extremely delicate, and they’re well cared for. We anticipate they will remain here in perpetuity. That’s what museums do.”
The striking photo of Renty, showing an unsmiling middle-aged man naked from waist up, was put on the cover of the program for a March 2017 conference Harvard held exploring U.S. universities’ past relationship with slavery. The photo also was projected on a giant screen behind the speakers at the conference.
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Dean Lizabeth Cohen wrote in the program: “While Agassiz earned acclaim, Renty returned to invisibility.”
Lanier attended that conference. She strongly disagrees that the life of Renty, called “Papa Renty” in her mother’s stories, is a mystery apart from the photo.
Lanier writes about the conference in an unpublished manuscript about her research. “As my daughter Shonrael (Lanier) and I walked into the auditorium, we were both gripped by the larger than life picture of Papa Renty defiantly staring down the audience as they hustled to their seats. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Drew Faust opened the conference, discussing the debt owed to slaves for their servitude. Looking at the image of Papa Renty that filled the room, I could not help but feel his indignation. As Coates and Faust discussed atonement, in my heart I felt that a good first step would be to turn to the defiant image that filled the room and offer a heartfelt and sincere apology for once again exploiting him.”
Lanier said she started on her quest to explore the stories her mother told her about their ancestors. Mattye Lanier, who was born in Alabama, died in 2010 in Norwich, where she moved in 1949. “I always give my mother credit for remembering the little things,” Lanier said, such as that Papa Renty was called the African. “I think my mother was one who listened very intently and told me and my children.”
Lanier worked with Boston genealogist Chris Child, who also traced the ancestors of Barack Obama, to trace her lineage. She believes she has succeeded in connecting her great-grandfather, named Renty Taylor and then Renty Thompson, to a plantation near Columbia, S.C., owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor. The photographs of Renty and his daughter Delia, also a slave, are known to have been taken there.
“I can put my family on the Taylor plantation,” Lanier said last week. “That to me is definite proof.”
“Definite proof” seems a little shaky.