Tamara Lanier looked at the photo for the first time, finally putting a face to the man she knew as "Papa Renty."
For years, she heard the stories that her late mother proudly told about their slave ancestor. Lanier promised she would one day write them down and create a family tree.
And here he was – gray-haired and bare-chested, staring defiantly straight ahead in a photo known as a daguerreotype.
"It was almost like we made eye contact," Lanier said. "It was an immediate feeling of kinship."
Lanier describes Renty, born in the Congo in central Africa and a slave in South Carolina, as "larger than life" – someone respected in his community, who taught other slaves how to read despite laws against it and was proud of his African roots.
The photos of Renty and his daughter Delia, taken in the nude in March 1850 against their will for a Harvard University professor, are now the subject of a lawsuit that Lanier, 54, filed against Harvard this week.
Lanier, a Connecticut resident who says she's Renty's great-great-great granddaughter, has accused Harvard of the wrongful seizure of the photos, profiting from them and failing to recognize that she's Renty's direct descendant. She wants a court to order the photos be given to her family, as well as unspecified monetary damages.
The photos were commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century Harvard biologist, who had daguerreotypes of 13 slaves taken to reinforce his racist belief that white people are superior to African-Americans.
The photos, believed to be the earliest of American slaves and now iconic images of slavery in the U.S., are still owned by Harvard.
Lanier first found them on the internet in 2011. She had been alerted by a friend, an ancestry hobbyist and owner of an ice cream shop, who she talked to at the store. She spent the next few years tapping the expertise of professional genealogists, including one who has traced the lineage of Barack and Michele Obama.
Lanier believes that her lengthy research has validated what her mother said for years, but what Harvard won't acknowledge – that Renty is her part of her family.
"I've talked to people all over the state, all over the country, all over the world, and everybody is just seemingly astonished at this discovery," Lanier said. "Everybody but Harvard."
Harvard has not commented on the lawsuit.
Here's what Lanier say she knows about "Papa Renty." It's a combination of oral history from her family and information she says is proven by records.
Lived on a plantation in Columbia, South Carolina
Renty, who Lanier said was around 65 when the Agassiz photos were taken, lived on a cotton plantation in Columbia, South Carolina, that was owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor.
This is where the studio was located where Renty, Delia and others were photographed by a man named J.T. Zealy.
Although Lanier said she has not verified details about his arrival to America, she believes Renty first entered New Orleans from Africa in the late 1700s in a Spanish slave trade ship. He would have been about 15. She believes he later came to South Carolina through the slave market.
She said Renty was purchased in the early 1800s by Col. Thomas Taylor, the father of Benjamin Taylor whose family owned much of the land where Columbia, South Carolina was built. "Papa Renty" took the name Renty Taylor after the Civil War. It's unknown when he died.