Sometimes the best thing about history is the obscure events and incidents of which one has no knowledge. They not only provide an opportunity to learn but also inform and educate about people, places and things which may have influenced where we are today. They can also make for great trivia questions.
The story at hand is important for a number of reasons. First, it revolves around the institution of slavery. Second, it involves an African-American woman who was once enslaved, then freed, kidnapped and re-enslaved, freed again at the end of the war and then filed suit against her second enslaver on civil charges for damages for lost wages during her many years in bondage. Third, it was one of the relatively few such successful suits although she ultimately received an amount of restitution much less than she had originally demanded.
Although Henrietta Wood eventually sank into obscurity in the last decades of her long life, her story was there for the telling by virtue of surviving court documents (some were lost in a 1864 courthouse fire) and interviews which she gave in the 1870s to a young Cincinnati newspaper reporter and a newspaper in Ohio. These primary sources, among others, provided a plethora of fact and detail which allowed the author, W. Caleb McDaniel, to not only tell the story of her life but that of the central narrative which was the ordeal surrounding the trial against a man who was instrumental in her re-enslavement.
If there were any problems in recounting her story, it is the fact that, being mostly uneducated and older, she couldn’t always remember names, places and other facts due to faulty memory or the fact that the interviewers sometimes misunderstood her. Additionally, the Cincinnati reporter, Lafcadio Hearn, left out some of the somewhat more sordid facts of her ordeal or Wood simply wouldn’t reveal everything to him.
In any event, Wood had been freed, had the papers to prove it (though not on her when re-enslaved)) and was living in Cincinnati when her employer enticed her into a taking carriage ride over the Ohio River to Kentucky where she was sold to three men, including one Zebulon Ward. She was sold “down the river” and ultimately ended up on a Mississippi plantation whose wealthy owner was forced to flee to Texas with his slaves rather than chance having them freed by Federal troops or flee themselves to Union lines.
After the war ended, she was able to return to Cincinnati, engaged a lawyer and filed suit for damages. The trial experience for her was as lengthy and convoluted as possible as Ward’s attorney did as much as possible to delay, obfuscate and prevent a final verdict. The suit went on for years until finally, in a literal matter of days, a verdict was rendered and, instead of the original asked-for $20,000, she was awarded $2500. A considerable sum of money then, it was a drop in the bucket for Ward who had managed to amass a fortune over the years from slave-dealing, various commercial enterprises, thoroughbred race horse breeding and convict labor leasing as a state penitentiary “operator” in both Kentucky and Arkansas. Although untrue, Ward always considered himself the last man in America to ever pay for a slave.
A side story, the immediate facts of which are obscure or unknown, is the son she bore sometime while enslaved in Mississippi and who survived the long walk with her from there to Texas and lived his own long life as a well-known lawyer and community leader in Chicago, dying in his nineties in 1951.
Accompanying the text and map detailing Wood’s path across the country is a photographic section which includes contemporary photographs, lithographs and an additional map locating Ward’s horse farm in Kentucky. The photographs are of various important documents, places and personages relevant to the story, among other subjects.
Footnote citations are standard but there is no actual bibliography and McDaniel’s sources are extensive as indicated in the notes. The author has made his research available and accessible online as noted in an essay on sources.
Of course, there is much more to this tale than what is summarized above. Despite what African-American people endured antebellum, immediately postbellum and on into the twentieth century, there were some successes and victories for them. This an interesting and well-told story of one of those.
Title: Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution
Author: W. Caleb McDaniel
Publisher: Oxford University Press