Today they are seen as emblematic of the depth of American racism. But in their day and for a century beyond, the familiar but unsettling 19th-century daguerreotypes of Jem, Alfred, Delia, Renty, Fassena, Drana, and Jack were accepted in some circles as scientific evidence of the inherent inferiority of Blacks.
A Thursday afternoon webinar, “The Enduring Legacy of Slavery and Racism in the North,” took as its starting point a new book on the images, “To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes,” co-published by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Aperture Foundation. The webinar examined the role of slavery in the North through the 19th century and the influence of Agassiz and scientific racism.
The daguerreotypes, commissioned by Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz to support his theories of human origins and found in the attic of the Peabody in 1976, represent “vivid and visceral records of our country’s original sin,” according to the book’s preface. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin quoted it in introducing the panel: Kyera Singleton, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford; John Stauffer, Sumner R. and Marshall S. Kates Professor of English and of African and African American studies; and Manisha Sinha, James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut.
This program was presented as part of the presidential initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, a University-wide effort housed at the Radcliffe Institute.
The images are symbolic of Harvard’s own entanglement with slavery, Brown-Nagin said. “For too long, Americans in the north of this country have cherished a narrative about widespread Northern opposition to the institution of slavery — privileging those stories over a more accurate and complete narrative about the ways that many Northerners were complicit in, and benefited from, slavery.”