In 1976, in an unfrequented museum attic at Harvard University, Lorna Condon opened a drawer.
Condon, a young editorial assistant at the school's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, had been foraging around a dusty corner of storage with two colleagues that day. Amid the clutter of items little used in displays, she'd stopped at a wooden cabinet. Someone had pushed it under an eave.
Inside, she noticed a group of flat leather cases, each a little bigger than a deck of cards. Condon called over Elinor Reichlin, the museum’s registrar.
She grasped a case and unlocked its tiny latch. With that simple flip, they released a genie of history, a long-lost story of humanity and inhumanity that stretched from the esteemed halls of Harvard to the dirt and bolls of South Carolina's cotton plantations.
None of them knew this yet.
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Each of the 15 identical cases contained a daguerreotype, an early form of photography from the mid-1800s. Beneath glass and faux-gold frames, a lone Black person stared into the camera, stony-faced and resolute, except one young woman whose eyes appeared blurred with tears.
All of the people, photographed portrait-style and beautifully lit, were partially or entirely naked.
Most were middle-aged or older men. Two were women who sat in fluffy antebellum dresses, hands clasped in their laps, dress tops pulled down to fully expose their breasts.
In other images, men stood fully nude, barefoot on a handsome rug in front of a wooden stool. Each was photographed facing front, then from the side, then from behind.
They didn’t appear undressed for pornographic purposes. The pictures felt oddly clinical.
What on earth were these?
Nothing in the drawer explained what they'd discovered. Only small, handwritten labels affixed to each offered clues:
"Fassena (carpenter), Mandingo, plantation of Col. Wade Hampton, near Columbia, S.C."
"Jack (driver), Guinea, plantation of B.F. Taylor, Esq., Columbia, S.C."
"Jem, Gullah, belonging to F.W. Green, Esq."
One of the researchers rushed downstairs to summon their colleagues.
The discovery sent Reichlin and others on a quest to solve the disturbing mystery. It continues today, 45 years later.
But Harvard historians weren't the only ones hunting for clues. In 2019, a woman named Tamara Lanier sued the university for possession of the daguerreotypes. Based on her own research, she claimed to be a descendant of two people captured in them.
The complaint, filed by an attorney who handles high-profile civil rights cases, cast its demands in sweeping terms: “The story of this case spans 175 years. It is a story about opportunism, greed, and profound moral abdication by one of the country’s most revered educational institutions.”
So many years after slavery's end, not unlike in the aftermath of wars or colonization, the question remains: Who has rights to the plunder of the most egregious wrongs?
The story began, in many ways, in 1846 when a famous Swiss scientist named Louis Agassiz immigrated to the United States. He'd been invited to give a series of lectures in Boston, and to the elation of many, had accepted.
The 39-year-old was known for his groundbreaking method of classifying animals. At just 22, he’d published a tremendous study of Brazilian fish in which he had drawn and arranged in order more than 500 species. He’d since written copious books and articles about all manner of scientific topics, further boosting his profile.
Shortly after arriving in Boston, Agassiz decided to take a quick jaunt to Philadelphia to meet another lover of classifications. Samuel Morton, a physician and craniologist there, had amassed perhaps the world's largest collection of skulls.
The men hit it off. During his visit, Agassiz admired the vast collection; Morton explained some of his ideas.
Saying his measurements of human skulls proved Caucasians had the largest cranial capacity, Morton surmised this must prove they were the most intelligent race. He also claimed to have measured the smallest cranial capacity in Africans, which he argued meant they had the lowest intelligence.
Then he added something else: The races must, therefore, have derived from different origins — not a common one.
The idea, called polygenesis, intrigued Agassiz. A European, he'd never been immersed in American racism or its vast institution of slavery.
His thoughts buzzed as he bid Morton farewell and headed to his hotel.
When he arrived, he noticed the hotel's domestic staff were Black. So were those who served his meal. He was repulsed by them.
He later wrote to his mother about the interaction.
"I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, and their lot inspired compassion in me in thinking that they are really men. Nonetheless, it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.”
Agassiz was sold on polygenesis.
When he returned to work in Boston, he continued lecturing and researching, joined elite social circles and became increasingly influential.
The following year, Harvard received a $50,000 donation, worth about $1.7 million today, from textile magnate Abbott Lawrence, a man whose wealth depended on Southern cotton plantations. The windfall allowed the university to create a scientific school — with Agassiz soon at its helm.
He had become an American celebrity.
Despite his interest in polygenesis, race wasn't Agassiz's top issue then, said Molly Rogers, an Agassiz researcher and author of “Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America.”
He and many other scientists were focused on explaining the natural world through creationism. A decade remained before Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" would introduce the theory that populations evolve over time through natural selection.
Agassiz, a minister’s son, believed God had created different plants and animals specifically to live in their “zoological provinces,” or areas of the world.
But to say that human beings had different origins?
When Agassiz uttered the idea, Boston clergy attacked him. The Bible describes one Adam and Eve who gave rise to all people. Polygenesis rang sacrilegious.
In response, to preserve his academic and social stations, Agassiz modulated what he said — until 1850. That spring, he headed south to Charleston, land of plantation slavery.
Agassiz arrived in March, when the weather warmed and azaleas began to bloom. But he arrived to a tempest.
Scientists from around the country flocked to Charleston for the third meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The main topic: the unity or diversity of species.
Its key speaker was Agassiz, now the most famous scientist in America.
The meeting convened as slavery increasingly divided the nation. In just two weeks, John C. Calhoun's death would renew Southern fidelity to him and his view of slavery as a "positive good." That fall, the Compromise of 1850 would avert a showdown between free and slave states after the Mexican-American War, albeit temporarily. Clouds of war clustered on the horizon.
In that environment, Agassiz spent his free time soaking in Charleston’s plantation culture. He befriended prominent locals, including John Edwards Holbrook, an internationally known herpetologist and a founder of the Medical College of South Carolina. Holbrook offered Agassiz access to his Cooper River plantation where he could stroll and observe enslaved people up close.
"He was fascinated by slavery, a labor system completely unknown in his homeland; he was even more fascinated by the slaves," writes Rogers, the Agassiz expert.
When the scientific meeting was in session, Agassiz kept busy presenting his own papers and opining on others.
On day four, one by surgeon and anthropologist Josiah Nott particularly caught his attention. Although it focused on Jews, Nott made the larger argument that “no physical causes exist which can transform one race into another, as the white man into the negro, etc.”
The races, he added, “did not originate from a common center.”
Agassiz rose to speak. Here in the Deep South, he didn't need to soften his views.
The different races, he declared, were “well marked and distinct.” He agreed: People did not originate “from a common pair.”
Agassiz's comments exploded in the Boston newspapers.
Nott, the scientist whose paper triggered them, wasn’t at the meeting. But when he heard what happened, he dashed off a note to Morton, the scientist with the skulls, a fellow polygenesis believer.
“With Agassiz in the war," he wrote, "the battle is ours.”
The contentious meeting adjourned with Agassiz prepared to return home for his wedding.
But among his new friends was Dr. Robert Gibbes, a physician to elite planters in the state capital of Columbia. The role gave Gibbes access to thousands of enslaved people on plantations — including the dwindling few who had been born in Africa. Congress had ended the international slave trade four decades earlier, so most slaves by then had been born in the United States.
Gibbes made Agassiz an offer: Come examine them yourself.
Agassiz couldn't say no. He abruptly postponed his wedding and boarded a train to Columbia.
The camera's eye
A good 130 miles of pine forest and cotton fields later, he arrived. Agassiz had never been to the interior of South Carolina.
During his weeklong visit, he dined with the Hamptons, Taylors and other patricians of Columbia society. They too allowed him access to their plantations, where he thrilled at viewing captives from Africa up close.
How many people were subjected to his notoriously rigorous observations, or just what they entailed, remains unknown, Rogers said. But given he would return to Boston soon, Agassiz surely lamented his fleeting access to this trove of people.
So he and Gibbes concocted a solution. It involved a fairly new technology that could produce permanent — and highly detailed — images.
They were called daguerreotypes.
Before this technology arrived to huge fanfare in 1839, only the most wealthy could afford portrait paintings. Few people had visual records of themselves. That was changing thanks to this new photography, which Edgar Allen Poe declared “perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science."
After Agassiz returned to Boston to marry and to pursue his work at Harvard, Gibbes moved forward with plans in earnest. He reached out to Joseph Zealy, the top photographer in town.
Zealy worked from a second-floor studio on Main Street downtown that welcomed clients into a handsomely decorated parlor complete with a piano. A dark backdrop, a rug with diamond patterns, a wooden chair, and a stool provided tools for taking elegant portraits. A skylight ensconced his subjects in natural light.
There, he photographed an array of socialites, planters, politicians and merchants.
One day in spring 1850, a small group of enslaved people arrived. They numbered at least seven.
What did each of them — Alfred, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, Delia and Renty — think when they were transported downtown to this strange building?
Most of the people were middle-aged or older. Most also toiled on plantations owned by Benjamin Taylor, the Princeton-educated state representative, racehorse breeder and cotton grower.
A man named Renty, who hailed from the Congo, likely was the oldest. He arrived with his daughter Delia, likely the youngest, around 20 years old.
Another man also came from a Taylor plantation. Born in Guinea, his named was Jack. He was a “driver,” someone who oversaw other enslaved workers and therefore walked a tightrope between master and fellow captives.
Jack arrived with his daughter Drana, the second woman in the group.
Two other men, Alfred and Jem, were owned by different slaveholders in the Columbia area.
Fassena, a 57-year-old West African carpenter, was owned by Col. Wade Hampton II, planter and member of a South Carolina dynasty. Fassena likely helped build Hampton’s famed Millwood mansion, which Gen. William Sherman would burn down 15 years later on his infamous March to the Sea.
Jem, who was a few years older, likely was the only one who worked in the city, Rogers said. His owner lived several blocks away from Gibbes.
Did they all arrive at the same time to wait and witness the others' suffering?
Did they know what was about to happen to them? Or why?
And who ordered them to remove their clothing?
Surely Gibbes was there, directing Zealy as to how one should position specimens for observation: up close, then full body. Frontal view, side, back.
History shrouds details of what happened inside the studio as each person stood before the camera for the 3 to 15 minutes each daguerreotype required.
But the pictures remain.
Daguerreotypes produce a black-and-white image that records the texture of every hair and nail, the divots of each wrinkle and scar.
Charleston historian Harlan Greene describes the images in an essay for a voluminous book about the daguerreotypes. Published in the fall by Harvard's Peabody Museum Press and co-edited by Rogers, it is entitled “To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes."
Greene writes, “It’s not just the subjects’ nakedness and their lack of power over the camera’s clinical eye that horrify, but it’s the full front and back views, the debasing and degrading reduction of human beings to specimens, that is the real issue.”
When Zealy completed his work, he placed each picture into a leather case lined in red velvet and stamped with his name. Then he gave them to Gibbes.
Gibbes, in turn, jotted quick notes describing each person.
"Renty, Congo, B.F. Taylor, Esq. Columbia, S.C.”
“Delia, country born of African parents, daughter of Renty, Congo.”
Excited, he also penned a note to Morton, the scientist with the skulls: “I have just finished daguerreotypes for Agassiz of native Africans of various tribes. I wish you could see them.”
Then he shipped the images to Agassiz at Harvard.
Show and tell
That fall, when Agassiz received the daguerreotypes, he apparently was so excited that he brought them to a gathering of his elite Harvard peers.
The men were part of the Cambridge Scientific Club, which counted among its members two Harvard presidents, historians, philosophers, lawyers and literature professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, although the poet wasn't there that evening.
Rain poured as the men gathered in one members' palatial home. The night's discussion topic was the unity of races.
When they got to business, Agassiz pulled out the daguerreotypes.
He passed them around.
Those gathered studied the images: two women with their breasts exposed, men with naked genitals. What did they think?
Viewing nude enslaved people wasn’t unusual among slaveowners, explains John Stauffer, a Harvard professor of English, African and African American Studies.
“It was common for white men, in particular, to look at scantily clad or naked slaves in public, especially at auctions and whippings,” he writes in “To Make Their Own Way in the World.”
Ilisa Barbash, a Peabody curator and co-editor of the book, notes the particular exploitation of Black women who "were scrutinized on auction blocks, raped in the households where they served, and acted as 'wet nurses' to children not their own."
But Agassiz wasn’t in a slave state anymore.
What was the reaction in that room? Rogers, who unearthed evidence the meeting occurred, said details remain elusive.
Perhaps a clue lingers in the fact that Agassiz never published the images. Nor does it appear he presented them again.
Instead, the daguerreotypes wound up in a drawer in the attic of Harvard's Peabody Museum until 1976, a century after Agassiz’s death, when the group of employees discovered them.
'I saw what happened'
Back before the internet could so easily set images free to the global masses, Harvard tried to restrict access to and dissemination of the disturbing photographs.
It required viewers to sign a contract promising not to use them without the university’s permission.
One day in the 1990s, Carrie Mae Weems, an acclaimed Black artist, signed the agreement. She’d been lecturing about the daguerreotypes for years as part of her interest in how Black people had been portrayed in photography.
Despite signing the contract, she used the pictures anyway in a project entitled “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, 1995-1996.”
The university threatened to sue her.
In a 2009 interview with the program Art21, she recalled thinking: The richest university in the world is going to sue me for using these images?
After considering Harvard's effort to control the images, she called back: “I think actually you suing me would be a really good thing. You should. And we should have this conversation in court.”
Instead, the university purchased Weems' artwork.
'Write this down'
In 2010, a couple hours' drive away from Harvard, an elderly Black woman lay dying.
At 86, Mattye Thompson Lanier knew her time on earth was dwindling. So did her daughter Tamara Lanier, who sat listening to her mother retell the family stories she had long shared with pride.
Mattye had grown up in Montgomery, Ala., the daughter of sharecroppers, picking cotton herself, going to college with civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy and then migrating north to Connecticut.
Her brother, a carpenter, had even taken part in the Montgomery bus boycott. His given name was Renty William, although everyone called him Willie.
Mattye especially loved to talk about an enslaved ancestor who had taught himself to read and then taught others, despite the severe risks. They called him Papa Renty.
“Write this down,” Mattye told her daughter.
As her body weakened, Mattye persisted: “I want you to do this.”
She died on Jan. 8, 2010.
While grieving, Tamara Lanier realized she’d made a promise. But she knew nothing about doing genealogy research — and what she did know was that it was particularly hard for African Americans to find clues to identity in slavery's void. White people had seen little value in recording much about their human property.
Lanier felt overwhelmed. A chief probation officer, she left work one day to get lunch at a favorite little ice cream shop in downtown Norwich, a small harbor city in eastern Connecticut. The older couple who owned it often made small talk as she paid for her salads.
This time, Lanier told them about her mother’s death. And the promise. She mentioned Papa Renty.
“Let me help,” the owner, Richard Morrison, offered. Lanier thanked him and left.
A week or so later, she returned for lunch.
“Where have you been?” Lanier recalled him asking. “I found your Papa Renty on the internet!”
Morrison emailed her details. That evening, Lanier opened his note to find a story about Agassiz. Her eyes connected with a man staring back from an old daguerreotype. The article said his name was Renty.
Oh my God, Lanier thought.
“I knew in my heart he was the man I’d heard about for so many years.”
Knowing in her heart and finding historical evidence proved quite different.
As Frederick Douglass once lamented, “Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves.” And in many Southern cities, what little did exist had been destroyed in wars, earthquakes, hurricanes and fires.
Lanier was luckier than most; Gibbes had left a critical clue. On the note he'd stuck to the pictures of Renty, he named the man's owner: B. F. Taylor, or Benjamin Franklin Taylor.
Lanier started calling South Carolina libraries, clerks' offices and universities. She found plenty about the prominent Taylor family — but little about the descendants of the enslaved people on their plantations.
“I was hitting so many roadblocks and dead ends,” she recalled.
Night after night, long into darkness, she combed online records, agonizing at the massive gaps. The longing to know family history “really creates a void that’s hard explain,” she said.
But she did find a few gold nuggets along the barren historical road.
Among them was an 1834 slave index of Benjamin Taylor's father's estate. It listed hundreds of people sectioned off into family groupings. Two families included men named Renty.
On the left-hand side, one Renty was listed with six others, including Delia, the woman in the daguerreotypes.
On the right-hand side, "Big Renty" was listed with two other people.
Lanier wondered if "Big Renty" was Renty’s father.
She had a start.
Over time, she also found a living Black descendent of the Taylor plantations who knew how to get in touch with Dr. Edmund Rhett Taylor, a descendant of Benjamin Taylor. The man was almost 100 years old.
Lanier stared at Dr. Taylor's phone number. Would he slam the phone down? Dismiss her? Listen? Laugh? Apologize?
Mostly, Lanier wanted to know where the Taylor family had migrated, taking their enslaved workers with them. Her mother's family had lived in Montgomery, Ala., during Jim Crow.
Lanier dialed and held her breath. A woman answered.
“You don’t know who I am,” Lanier recalled saying. “My family descended from Benjamin Taylor’s plantation ... ”
Mary Haque, the elderly physician's daughter, responded kindly. She put Taylor on the line.
He, in turn, invited Lanier to their home in Columbia.
So in May 2016, she stood at the front door of the Taylor family’s house on a lake in Columbia. Taylor, his wife, daughter and other relatives greeted her warmly.
Like Lanier’s mother, Taylor proved a gifted storyteller. Still sharp and gregarious, he read aloud from family documents he’d collected, stopping to sprinkle in family lore.
It gave Lanier chills.
"In that moment, I felt I was hearing from him the historic perspective of the slaveholder that was completely in line with what I had heard from my mother. Both stories were virtually the same but told from two different perspectives.”
As they spoke, Lanier also recognized names.
Mary, John, William, Anne, Sarah, Benjamin, George and Simon — all names in common. She realized her own family members were named after the Taylors.
When the daguerreotypes came up, Taylor noted that Benjamin hadn't been particularly interested in science. Lanier wondered if Gibbes, the Taylor family’s physician, had been honest about where he'd planned to take the enslaved people that day — or why.
Then she got the answer she'd come for. The Taylors confirmed that Benjamin Taylor had, indeed, owned property in Alabama.
Between her mother's stories and the records she found, Lanier began to piece together a story.
Her grandfather Renty Taylor was born enslaved by the Taylors in South Carolina. She believes he was the son of "Renty" listed on the 1834 slave index and grandson of "Big Renty," the man in the daguerreotypes.
After Benjamin Taylor died, this third Renty's new owners changed his name to Renty Thompson. After the war, he migrated to Alabama.
There, Renty Thompson had nine children, including a son named Frederick Thompson.
And that man, Lanier said, was her mother's father.
“It all adds up.”
In 2010, Lanier approached the Peabody Museum with a request. She’d found evidence that she could be a descendant of Renty and Delia and wanted to see their likenesses in person.
The museum agreed. Lanier took her daughter, unsure what to expect. She also brought the early research she had gathered so far.
When they arrived, Lanier handed the documents to a woman. Then they went through enough security, signatures and other hoops that the whole process felt hollow and strange by time they set eyes on the daguerreotypes.
After they left, Lanier said, she heard nothing back about the documents she'd shared.
The following year, she emailed Harvard’s then-president, Drew Faust. Could Harvard provide a formal review of her research?
Four years had passed since several dozen Harvard students set out to unearth the storied university’s complicity in slavery. They discovered that its presidents had enslaved people live with them on campus and that the university's “significant endowments had drawn from the exploitation of slave labor."
Their findings prompted fresh discussions and actions at Harvard aimed at grappling with that history.
Faust emailed back that she appreciated Lanier’s “offer to be of assistance” and that two employees “have agreed to be in touch with you if they discover any new information.”
Lanier felt dismissed.
Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane, however, said researchers already had engaged with Lanier. She’d been welcomed to view the daguerreotypes and met with an archivist.
"Members of the Peabody staff were excited when they first learned Ms. Lanier’s story," Dane said.
They also had reviewed what research she'd handed over and encouraged her to share any other evidence she found.
"Ms. Lanier was treated with respect and repeatedly informed that the museum was open to reviewing additional information about her story," Dane added.
This kind of historical research is notoriously difficult to prove with certainty, especially for African Americans whose descendants are recorded only as first names, often common ones, if they are recorded at all.
A few years later, in 2017, Lanier heard that Harvard was hosting a conference at which the acclaimed Black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates would give the keynote.
She and her daughter attended. When they walked in, Renty's image stared back from a gigantic screen. It also adorned the conference's program. Renty, she said, was described as invisible.
Lanier felt insulted. By then, she had collected enough research and oral family history that she felt convinced the Renty staring back was Papa Renty.
“It was a slight to my mother and her reverence of him, her memories of him," Lanier recalled. "This larger-than-life person, they referred to as invisible.”
She wrote to Faust again. She didn't want Harvard, the school that had employed Agassiz, to tell Renty and Delia's story anymore.
This time, she included a demand: “Please accept this notice as my formal request to have the Slave Daguerreotypes immediately relinquished to me as the lineal descendant of Congo Renty and our family.”
Going to court
Harvard did not give her the daguerreotypes. So Lanier contacted Benjamin Crump, the prominent Houston attorney who represents the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — whose killings prompted nationwide protests over the summer and deeper discussions about racism.
In spring 2019, they sued Harvard in Massachusetts state court.
On Twitter, Crump called it one of the most important cases since Brown v. Board of Education. “By my calculation, Renty is 169 years a slave. When will Harvard finally set him free?"
The complaint reads part historical odyssey of sin, part legal challenge alleging unlawful “seizure, possession and expropriation of photographic images.” It asks a court to force the university to hand over the daguerreotypes, taken under the subjects' extreme duress, and “at long last, bring Renty and Delia home.”
As next of kin, Crump argued, Lanier has more right to the daguerreotypes than Harvard, which employed the racist man who directed the crime of their taking.
“We believe this lawsuit is landmark in nature," Crump told The Post and Courier.
If Lanier prevails, he said it would be the first reparations lawsuit in which a Black descendant of slavery recovered something from an institution through a direct legal action.
He compared it to Jews trying to recover family artifacts taken by Nazis during the Holocaust.
“There is no way that Harvard is the rightful owner of what are essentially the family photographs of this Black family,” Crump said. “Why should they continue to benefit from illegal, immoral activities?”
Dane, the Harvard spokeswoman, said the university doesn't comment on pending legal action.
In court filings, its attorneys counter that Lanier has no right to the images “however objectionable the circumstances of the photograph’s origins.” The museum acquired them legally, and its use of the images is protected by the First Amendment, they argue.
Under the law, images belong to the photographer or the person who commissioned the work, not people in them. Harvard will need to provide evidence connecting ownership from Agassiz to the university, said Brent Sausser, a Charleston-based intellectual property attorney.
Did Agassiz donate them to Harvard? After his death in 1873, his son Alexander assumed his post there. Did Alexander acquire them through probate and donate them?
“That is big,” Sausser said. “There needs to be a little more digging.”
If Harvard cannot prove those links, perhaps the photographs belong to Agassiz's family. Recently, 43 of them wrote to Harvard to support Lanier. Giving the pictures to her family, they wrote, “would begin to make amends for the white supremacist theory Agassiz espoused.”
In October, a judge heard arguments over Harvard’s motion to dismiss the case but hasn't ruled yet.
The daguerreotypes are among the Peabody’s most fragile objects. They are highly sensitive to light and stored in a cooled, monitored room, removed only twice a year for students and researchers to view.
They also are extremely valuable, Crump noted, and any museum would covet them. To him, Black descendants of the victims ought to decide which museum gets to hold them in its collection.
Lanier told The Post and Courier that if she prevails, she is committed to keeping the images safely preserved somewhere like the new International African American Museum being built in Charleston.
She also wants to keep them accessible.
“To understand the pain and the impact of these images, you have to see them,” she said. “If Emmett Till had had a closed casket, we would never have known his name.”
After Till's murder in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly offending a White woman at a grocery story, his family made the decision to display his suffering in that casket.
Display of Renty and Delia's bodies, Lanier argued, likewise should be hers.
Then again, the historical genie already has escaped. Copyrights also have expired, and digital versions of the daguerreotypes circulate widely on the internet, for anyone to see.