Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard

landing page for documentary

“The question is, who owns the rights to the violence of the past? Is it the victim or the perpetrator? ” — Tamara Lanier, Free Renty

https://www.freerentyfilm.com

This week, I attended a Together Films virtual screening of Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard, organized by genealogist Nicka Smith. Directed by David Gruber, the documentary covers the years that Tamara K. Lanier contacted and was rebuffed by Harvard University in acknowledging her claim on the image of Renty, her great-great-great grandfather. She launched her lawsuit against Harvard with Attorney Benjamin Crump and Josh Koskoff. Also appearing are author Ta-Nehisi Coates and scholars Ariella Azoulay and Tina Campt, who provide insights into the situation as the legal process unfolds.

The film provides a larger context for the case that traces a larger social shift, one that recognizes the need for reparations and social justice as litigation moved forward. There are interviews with Agassiz descendants and various scholars who believe it’s time for the university to recognize the descendants of the enslaved. 

From the perspective of the university, it’s a different frame, where collections and museums are immune to real life claims from people with familial or cultural connections to what’s on display. Yet today, there are many calls for decolonization and requests for the return of objects, which point to multiple instances of theft and appropriation as the mechanism that created many museum collections. Legal structures are created to deal with the situation, such as NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection Act). 

“If colonialism and ethnographic exploitation depend on appropriation, one must acknowledge that what is taken can always be taken back.” Brian Wallis (1996)

Back in 1996, curator Brian Wallis outlined the problem of knowledge that the daguerrotypes offer within the larger context of slave ownership in the 1850s. He traced the events of their making in Columbia, South Carolina, the culmination of Agassiz’ visit to several plantations in Columbia arranged by Dr. Robert W Gibbes, local doctor and collector. In 1850 the white population of Columbia was 6,000 and its enslaved population was 100,000. These were sites that relied on the use of violence as a means of control. That violence also left its mark across the subjects of Louis Agassiz’ collection of daguerrotypes.

Agassiz wanted images of ‘pure’ Africans to demonstrate his racist theory of polygenesis (multiple origins for humankind), at the bottom of his racial hierarchy.  That fundamentally pro-slavery view erased the essential humanity of the enslaved, obscuring what Dana Ramey Berry called their ‘soul value’. The resulting lack of empathy supported the plantation business that underpinned the US economy of the nineteenth century.

In other words, these images are Agassiz’ trophies, his collection of ‘objects’ that reinforce a patriarchal white supremacy tied to a fundamentally coercive practice of image making. Any connection to family and descent of those subjugated becomes fragile if not invisible, a regard not intended to survive beyond the collection. 

Here there are no conventions that link Joseph T Zealy’s 15 images to portraits, beyond the fancy leather case and the daguerrotype’s velvet setting. The images were forgotten and rediscovered in the preparation of an inventory at the Peabody Museum in 1975. Tamara Lanier learned of the images in 2011, and realized her connection. They are the oldest images of enslaved people extant, taken without permission, stolen images from subjects made possible by coercive force. 

Harvard & The Legacy of Slavery, 2022, cover.

This April, Harvard released the report Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. In some 60 pages, it outlines how the university profited and erased that history. However, the document is silent on Lanier’s claim to the images of her ancestors. 

The report’s first recommendation is to “Engage and Support Descendant Communities by Leveraging Harvard’s Excellence in Education.” [1] The project of reparations by surrendering the images makes an object lesson in decolonizing the museum, and create common ground with the Descendant Community of which Lanier is part of.

In 2020, I attended a webinar on the Zealy daguerrotypes, an introduction to a new volume of essays, To Make Their Own Way in the World on the 15 daguerrotypes of enslaved people taken by Joseph T Zealy, in South Carolina. I asked the panel: “Can you share thoughts about the Lanier connection to Renty? Mentioned was suspected he survived the Civil War, and what of this personal side of the image?”  The question was never considered, and nothing said about Tamara Lanier.  The images are instead, objects that are to be endlessly studied, endlessly caught in the frame of enslavement, subjugation and colonization. 

Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard is important to think with in terms of what we do as BIPOC genealogists, as similar dynamics haunt the practice of genealogy.  Whose story is being told and where? What do we do with the intersection of state organized violence and the fabric of our family histories?  Where is the accountability of the institutions involved in the enslavement of our ancestors? How are communities of enslaved descendants supported or ignored? Who gets to tell the story of Papa Renty and his family? 

References

Tamara K. Lanier speaks about her ancestor, https://www.harvardfreerenty.com/meet-renty-delia

Brian Wallace, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes'”, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. No. 12 (Summer, 1996), pp. 102-106 

Dana Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. Beacon Press, 2017.

Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, April 2022, 58. https://legacyofslavery.harvard.edu/report

To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerrotypes. Edited by Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, and Deborah Willis https://peabody.harvard.edu/make-their-own-way-world

A Constant Threat of Erasure: Racial Terror, Civil Rights and Family Histories – Pt. 1: Della McDuffie

Sitting with the Legacy of Jim Crow

Ep 83a: Stories from the National Memorial for Peace & Justice pt. 1

These last eight weeks, Black ProGen Live panelists are researching the genealogies of people who died by lynching. Among the cases  is that of Mrs Della McDuffie, who died almost 66 years to the day on 23 April 1953. Witnesses state that this resulted after being beaten to death with a length of industrial hose by Sheriff Percy Columbus ‘Lummie’ Jenkins and his staff during a raid of the small cafe she owned with her husband William McDuffie in Wilcox County, Alabama.[1]  She died within the hour. The supposed crime was playing music after midnight on the Sabbath.[2]

The Trouble I’ve Seen

The Trouble I’ve Seen is a film produced at Northeastern University that includes interviews on three cold cases, the first, being that of Mrs. Della McDuffie.

In the film, Mrs. McDuffie’s nephew,  JC Varner’s gives an account of the event:

“J.C. VARNER, Nephew: So he walked in and hit her told her get up old lady, go to bed. So she told him she couldn’t get up so he hit her across her arm on her knees, then he hit her on the head. And he shot down by her feet a couple of times, at her feet.

“WILLIAM MCDUFFIE: Doctor seen him striking at one person and another with a hose-like weapon. I saw a number hit with the weapon in Sheriff Jenkins hand.
BOND: But Dr. Robert E. Dixon’s statement reads…
DR. DIXON: I can definitely state that the cause of death was not brought on by any injury to the head, such as a blow.
FIDDIMAN: This case essentially was a cover up and it never went to court.
BOND: A year into the investigation, her husband William was found dead by his 2 grandchildren. WILLIAMS: I found my grandfather and it had appeared that he had been killed by way of drowning. They killed him because of the intensity of this investigation. They tried to get him to change his mind and change his statements like everyone else did. He refused to do that. And they took care of it. “[3]T

The High Cost of Inequality

Sharecropping Family on the Pettway Plantation, Gee’s Bend, AL. Arthur Rothstein, WPA photograph

Wilcox County is one of the poorest counties in the country, beset by  “high unemployment, poor access to education and medical care, substandard housing and high rates of crime.” [1] Despite a population comprised of African Americans in the majority, voter suppression tactics facilitated a continued disenfranchisement. That is not to say there is no strength and beauty in the resilient lives there. The spaces for these ancestors opens as their stories are written back into history.

Location of Wilcox County, AL. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

It’s a largely rural county, with cotton farming shaping its history within the state’s Black Belt. Rather than state or interstate highways, a network of county roads connect the county to  other areas.  You may have heard of Wilcox County, as it’s also home to Gee’s Bend, home of the women’s quilting collective. [3] Its legacy of slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming is a testament to extractive economies that leaves next to nothing for the majority of the population that made its fortunes. That same dynamic bleeds into the present.

Today, Alabama’s Black Belt is home to toxic landfill sites that dot these predominantly African American counties,  continuing the disregard for the descendants of those who tilled that land in cotton cultivation before and after the Civil War. 

RW Harrison, Six Generations of Women, Alabama. LOC.

The Why: Restorative Justice

Beyond the civil rights stolen from Mrs. McDuffie, there is a need to see more than this moment, and so we bring our skills to expand their family trees and tell other stories about those who came before them. I’ll bring together some of what I learned about her ancestors, before turning to contemporary issues involving the threat of erasure.

An issue with lynching is the potential for the carnage to occlude recognition of this violence as not only systemic, but ingrained into a community’s institutions. Is there a recognition that there’s a parallel between this past and the people who were accounted for under Congress’ Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013? [4]

Is there a recognition of the parallels between now and Reconstruction in the sweeping attempts at voter suppression across several states? Can laws that disproportionately affect those living in poverty help rather than set people up for prison in a system that is the 21st century version of a debt peonage system? How do we heal from this— on a familial, interpersonal, social and institutional levels? With 2.4 million prisoners in the US means a high chance this is part of your family history too. These accounts are part of the process of restorative justice.

 Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project

One important way to do this work is through newspaper research, seeking coverage that can supply details for the initial steps of genealogical records search. Thankfully, there are the case files by Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project  led by Professor Margaret Durham.  The video, The Trouble I’ve Seen, includes the law student, Bayliss Fiddiman, who worked on the McDuffie case and family members speaking to their experiences. 

These cases, available on the Northeastern University website, are basically the cold case files that law students research and compile to begin a process of restoration and recognition. Through them, the families are contacted, files requested from Federal and state agencies and a review of the material conducted towards a process of restorative justice.  How this outcome manifests depends on the community’s needs and resources marshaled for address and memorialization. 

Ultimately this recognition serves to confirm and establish the events of racial terror that happened, a counter to the silence and denial that surrounds acts of lynching.  What happened to the McDuffie family happened to almost five thousand people in this country who died at the hands of white lynch mobs. 

The denial of events was buttressed by the denial of civil rights and the ability to vote.  A decade after Mrs. McDuffie’s death in 1953, not a single African American was registered to vote in Wilcox County Alabama, despite being in the majority of the population there. When Civil Rights groups peacefully marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Sheriff Lummie Jenkins was there to turn the marchers back as police attacked with dogs, tear gas and smoke bombs. [5]

An Active Erasure: 1953-2019

“FBI Probe Murder of Ala. Woman.” The New York Age, 25 Jul 1953.

A search on Newspapers .com gives 184 results for Sheriff or PC Lummie Jenkins, yet there are no search results for Mrs. Della McDuffie, the woman he allegedly beat to death in 1953, or her husband, William McDuffie. According to the article’s prominent headline in The New York Age, the FBI was investigating the case.  

Yet the divide that splits into acknowledgement and disregard during those years also has its resonance in the failure to index her name into their database.  Perhaps this is most starkly illustrated by screenshots of the article shown here. 

Search Results: 1 of 2 for “Lummie Jenkins”. The New York Age, 25 Jul 1953. Note the location of names highlighted and a line below.

The results are starkly different when searching for “Della McDuffie”:

Search Results: 0 for “Della McDuffie”. The New York Age, 25 Jul 1953.

In these articles, the Sheriff’s name appears just one line above hers, yet there is not a single search result for Della McDuffie- despite the headline “FBI Probe Murder of Ala. Woman” — which specifically references McDuffie’s murder.  As these two images show, a page search brings up one name, yet not the other.  A year later, her husband was drowned and left lying across the doorway of their home, having refused to change his story about how his wife died from the beating given during the raid.  The indignity is compounded by their death certificates, which read that they died from cerebral hemorrhage. 

How exactly are newspapers indexed? Is this an algorithm, and if so, what are the parameters?

If we have ancestors who suffered injustice, how then, is one supposed to find that information on this site? 

 It seems much like the US itself,  Newspapers.com is in need of revisiting such events and address how they are indexed, especially as we are tasked to find and write our ancestors and families back into history. 

Continued: A Certain Threat of Erasure, Pt 2: Towards a History of the Varner Family

References

  1. Sheriff Jenkins has a long history in Wilcox County, serving as Sheriff from 1939-1971, using racial terror as power. One memory of Jenkins suggests what kind of person he was: “When I ask Lola Pettway, 77, if she remembers Lummie Jenkins, she recoils and shudders. She shares a memory of Sheriff Lummie standing at the edge of a field, watching her family pick cotton. Nancy Pettway, 83, tells me about how, just before she was married, her fiancé shot a dog that had attacked him. Mr. Lummie, she said, came to the Bend, arrested her fiancé, and threw him in jail for killing the dog….he was not an anomaly in the Jim Crow South, where sheriffs were considered more powerful than the American president. ” See Alexandra Marvar’s “The Two Faces of Lummie Jenkins”. Topic Magazinehttps://www.topic.com/the-two-faces-of-lummie-jenkins
  2. “The Trouble I’ve Seen” Campus Perspectives, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 01/22/2013. Accessed Sat May 30 2015 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=65676 
  3. For a brief history of Wilcox County, see Donna J. Siebenthaler, Auburn University “Wilcox County.”, Encyclopedia of Alabama: http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1294 ; Wilcox County Map, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/m-6162
  4. “Public Law 113-242, Dec 14, 2014. The Death in Custody Reporting Act ” https://www.congress.gov/113/plaws/publ242/PLAW-113publ242.pdf  Also see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_in_Custody_Reporting_Act_of_2013; The Counted. “Killings by US police logged at previous rate under new federal system.” The Guardian, 15 Dec 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/15/us-police-killings-department-of-justice-program
  5. “Gee’s Bend residents also remember Dr. King’s visits in 1965, the rallies in Camden, and the march on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. They remember marching to Camden as children and teenagers, being blockaded by Lummie and Mayor F. R. Albritton at the town’s edge, being pummeled with tear gas and smoke bombs, getting arrested, reaching the courthouse, kneeling in the street, and refusing to leave. They remember the songs they sang. Some remember what happened to David Colston, what happened to Della McDuffie. Some would rather not remember that time at all.” Marvar, “The Two Faces of Lummie Jenkins.” Topic Magazine, https://www.topic.com/the-two-faces-of-lummie-jenkins
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