Renty, Renty Biography and Profile, Papa Renty, Renty Biography and Profile, Benjamin Franklin Taylor, African Slave, Slavery, Slaves, African-American Slaves

Renty, born in the Congo in central Africa and a slave in South Carolina, was “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. Renty lived on a cotton plantation in Columbia, South Carolina, that was owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor.

Renty first entered New Orleans from Africa in the late 1700s in a Spanish slave trade ship. He would have been about 15. He later came to South Carolina through the slave market.

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.


Renty was called “The black African” when he was alive because he was born in Africa, the Congo.

It was rare for U.S. slaves by the mid-19th century, to be born in Africa as opposed to the U.S.

“That’s why I believe they called him ‘The black African,'” Tamara Lanier said. “And I also believe that he retained so much of his (African) culture, that he would not conform to the kind of traditional indoctrinations that they were subjecting African-American slaves to.” Tamara Lanier said she’s the great-great-great granddaughter of Congo Renty, who has become an iconic image in America’s brutal history with slavery.

Renty learned how to read and taught others to read with a book called a “Blue-backed Webster,” also known as a “Blue-backed Speller.” Reading would have been risky, even dangerous, for slaves because of anti-literacy laws in South Carolina and other slavery states.

Renty also read from the Bible. Tamara said her mother told her that Renty and other would “worship secretly” among only slaves after they got out of church services with their white owners. She said they wanted to “worship as they pleased.”

Lanier described Renty as a leader within the slave community who was respected. “He was just this larger than life person,” she said, even though he was short and thin physically as shown in the Agassiz photos.

Lanier said five generations of her family have been named Renty beginning with the Renty who came from Congo and lived at the Taylor plantation in South Carolina.

They were all either Renty Taylor or later Renty Thompson, she said. Her mother, Mattye Thompson Lanier, died in 2010.

The third-generation Renty migrated to Montgomery, Alabama to land owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor. Lanier’s mother, living in Alabama at the time, took part in a summer exchange problem where she traveled to the Northeast. That’s how the family ended up in Connecticut.

Renty’s Image: Tamara Lanier Versus Harvard University
At the center of the case is a series of 1850 daguerreotypes, an early type of photo, taken of two South Carolina slaves identified as Renty and his daughter, Delia. Both were posed shirtless and photographed from several angles. The images are believed to be the earliest known photos of American slaves.

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They were commissioned by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, whose theories on racial difference were used to support slavery in the U.S. The lawsuit says Agassiz came across Renty and Delia while touring plantations in search of racially “pure” slaves born in Africa.

“That photograph is like a hostage photograph,” the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told The New York Times. “This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda — that’s what that photograph was taken for.”

Tamara Lanier, a retired probation officer, has asked for a jury trial to make her case. She wants compensation for pain and suffering. She wants punitive damages. And she wants Harvard to hand over the photos.

Lanier’s mother, Tamara, 54, filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts saying that she is a direct descendant of Renty and Delia, and that the valuable photographs are rightfully hers. The case renews focus on the role that the country’s oldest universities played in slavery, and comes amid a growing debate over whether the descendants of enslaved people are entitled to reparations — and what those reparations might look like.

“It is unprecedented in terms of legal theory and reclaiming property that was wrongfully taken,” Benjamin Crump, one of Ms. Lanier’s lawyers, said. “Renty’s descendants may be the first descendants of slave ancestors to be able to get their property rights.”

The lawsuit argues that Harvard has used the Renty images to “enrich itself.” The image is on the the cover of a 2017 book, “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery,” published by the Peabody Museum and sold online by Harvard for $40.

The photo also was displayed on the program for a 2017 conference that Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advance Study hosted on the school’s relationship with slavery.

According to Lanier’s attorneys, Harvard requires that people sign a contract in order to view the photos and pay a licensing fee to the university to reproduce the images.

“I keep thinking, tongue in cheek a little bit, this has been 169 years a slave, and Harvard still won’t free Papa Renty,” said Mr. Crump, who in 2012 represented the family of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager killed by a community watch member in Florida. Ms. Lanier is also represented by Josh Koskoff, a lawyer who represents families of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre victims.

Renty and Delia were among seven slaves who appeared in 15 images made using the daguerreotype process, an early form of photography imprinted on silvered copper plates.

Mr. Coates, the author of a widely discussed article making the case for reparations, said in an interview that while he deeply respected the scholars at the conference, he sympathized with Ms. Lanier’s cause.

“That photograph is like a hostage photograph,” Mr. Coates said of Renty’s image. “This is an enslaved black man with no choice being forced to participate in white supremacist propaganda — that’s what that photograph was taken for.”

“Slavery was abolished years ago, but Renty and Delia remain enslaved in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” the complaint states. “Their images, like their bodies before, remain subject to control and appropriation by the powerful, and their familial identities are denied to them.”

Lanier’s complaint alleges Harvard is still deriving the indirect profits of slavery. “The claim is simple,” Josh Koskoff, one of Lanier’s attorneys, told The Washington Post. “You took something. It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to me. And I want it back.”

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The complaint tells the story of Lanier’s family, passed down from one generation to the next in oral tradition, starting with Renty — a slave in South Carolina who taught himself to read in defiance of state law. Lanier juxtaposes her family’s history with that of Harvard and its relationship with professor Louis Agassiz.

“It was an act of both love and resistance that Renty and Delia’s kin kept their memories and stories alive for well over a century,” the complaint says. “It is unconscionable that Harvard will not allow Ms. Lanier to, at long last, bring Renty and Delia home.”

In 2017, Georgetown University in Washington DC apologised for selling 272 slaves in the early 1800s and offered an admissions advantage to the descendants of the men, women and children who were sold in order to cancel the university’s debt.

Harvard Law School removed its official seal in 2016 after it was found to have been used as the family crest of a notoriously brutal slave owner, Isaac Royall, who was known to have ordered 77 enslaved people to be burned alive.

Mr. Coates said he understood how Ms. Lanier felt seeing it at the conference. “I get why it would bother her,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of all that at the time.”

“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.”

Family Ancestry
Renty was called “The black African” when he was alive because he was born in Africa, the Congo. Tamara Lanier said her mother told her that Renty learned how to read and taught others to read with a book called a “Blue-backed Webster,” also known as a “Blue-backed Speller.”

Tamara Lanier said she began studying her family’s ancestry after her mother died in 2010 to follow up on family stories she heard about Papa Renty. She worked with Boston genealogist Chris Child, who is known for tracing ancestors of Barack Obama, according to a 2018 article in the Norwich Bulletin.

“Most importantly, I want the true story of who Renty is to be told. That’s all I’ve ever asked for.”

Tamara Lanier from Renty Family Lineage
Tamara Lanier from Renty’s Family Lineage

Nothing prevents Lanier from doing so, now, then or in the future. She can tell the story of the man she believes, with all sincerity, is her great-great-great-grandfather. She doesn’t need Harvard to acquiesce to her demands of recognition to do so. As of now, it appears Harvard isn’t inclined to cave.

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There is no doubt that Harvard, like so many institutions and people at the time, engaged in practices that are anathema today. These daguerreotypes show it, whether Renty is Lanier’s ancestor or not. Would conceding to Lanier’s demands suffice for Harvard to atone for its sins or open a wound that will bleed in perpetuity because, for better or worse, history can’t be undone no matter how harsh the rhetoric of shame?

“What I hope we’re able to accomplish is to show the world who Renty is. I think this case is important because it will test the moral climate of this country and force this country to reckon with its long history of racism,” Tamara Lanier said at a news conference in New York City.

Tamara Lanier said she can trace her great-grandfather, named Renty Taylor and then Renty Thompson, to a plantation near Columbia, South Carolina, owned by Benjamin Franklin Taylor. This is where the photos are believed to have been taken. This is where the studio was located where Renty, Delia and others were photographed by a man named J.T. Zealy.

Lanier said in 2015 she met Dr. Edmund Taylor, the great-great-great grandson of Benjamin Taylor, for lunch in Columbia, South Carolina. He was 98 and died two years later.

She said they sat at a table that was hand-carved by a slave from the old Taylor plantation – perhaps by one of her own ancestors. They were eating from Taylor’s dishes.

Renty Biography and Profile, Papa Renty, Renty Biography and Profile, Benjamin Franklin Taylor, African Slave, Slavery, Slaves, African-American Slaves
Renty Biography and Profile

“It was surreal for many reasons,” Lanier said. “But most specifically, when Dr. Taylor was speaking about Benjamin Franklin Taylor and the history of his family, I felt like I was hearing confirmation and validation of everything my mom had told me from Renty’s perspective.”

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