Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America

by W. Caleb McDaniel

Publishers Weekly In this gripping study, Rice University historian McDaniel recounts the painful but triumphant story of one enslaved woman’s long fight for justice. Henrietta Wood, born into bondage, was freed by her owner in 1848. Seven years later, she was kidnapped and reenslaved by Kentucky horse breeder Zebulon Ward, and did not regain her freedom until the end of the Civil War. Wood was determined to gain compensation for her additional years of servitude and for the fact that her son Arthur had been born into slavery, and sued Ward in 1868. Nearly a decade later, Wood was victorious; although the $2,500 in damages the court awarded her were far less than she had requested, the funds, “the largest known ever awarded by a U.S. court in restitution for slavery,” helped to establish Arthur as a lawyer in Chicago. The two extensive interviews Wood gave to reporters during her lawsuit illuminate her remarkable life. Nearly a century after Wood’s lawsuit, McDaniel recounts, Martin Luther King warned his supporters that the civil rights project would remain incomplete until African-Americans gained economic as well as political equality, and that any such improvements must be “demanded by the oppressed.” McDaniel tells this story engrossingly and accessibly. This is a valuable contribution to Reconstruction history with clear relevance to current debates about reparations for slavery. Photos. (Sept.)

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Kirkus A professor of history pulls back the curtain on a hidden episode in the annals of American slavery. Henrietta Wood, writes McDaniel in this excellent history, was born into servitude thanks to a Kentucky law that decreed a child of an enslaved mother, no matter who the father or the hue of their skin, to be also a slave. She was sold, sent to New Orleans, and then brought to Cincinnati, where her owner freed her. Five years later, she was hoodwinked by a supposedly sympathetic white woman, driven across the river into the slave state where she was born, and sold into “a decade of reenslavement in the Deep South.” Even as she was sent to the cotton fields, friends in Cincinnati undertook to free her, and the ensuing lawsuits lasted decades; as the author writes, “the news spread quickly across abolitionist networks,” reported by none other than Frederick Douglass. Eventually, Wood sued sometime owner and middleman Zeb Ward, a loathsome fellow who made his fortune by leasing prisoners and working them to death. Ward bragged even after losing the suit that he was “the last man to pay for a negro slave in this country,” as a reporter at the trial noted. Wood won a settlement of $2,500, which enabled her son to buy a home in Chicago and attend law school, after which he worked for decades as a trial lawyer. As for Ward, he “was reborn in the national press as a harmless, walking stereotype: that of the genial Kentucky colonel who liked to sip mint juleps and talk about horses.” Wood’s victory was significant, writes McDaniel. The payout was small considering the grave injustices she had suffered, but it remains “the largest known sum ever awarded by a US court in restitution for slavery.” The author writes nimbly of past events while giving a clear view of present concerns—including whether restitution is a possibility today, more than 150 years after emancipation. A superb work of historical detection, admirably well written and full of surprises. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal The life of Henrietta Wood (1818–1912) was an odyssey. Born into slavery, Wood tasted freedom once, but was kidnapped, reenslaved, and then freed again. From her home state of Kentucky, she journeyed to New Orleans; Cincinnati; Natchez, MS; Texas; then back to Cincinnati, finally settling in Chicago. After being reenslaved in 1853, Wood sued unsuccessfully for her freedom. She sued again for reparation of lost wages after the Civil War. With the help of others, and in spite of many hurdles and stumbling blocks, she managed to win a judgment for a tenth of the wages for which she sued. McDaniel (history, Rice Univ.; The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery) renders an enthralling biography of a determined, resilient woman. Using creative fiction techniques, he builds on Wood's story, which she recounted in interviews with two Ohio newspapers in 1876 and 1879. Wood's primary antagonist, Zebulon Ward, against whom she sued for reparation, was a wealthy man, principally through leasing prison labor in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas for manufacturing various products. VERDICT A well-researched, well-told story that also contributes to the debate about reparations. Recommended for both academic and general readers.—Glen Edward Taul, formerly with Campbellsville Univ., KY

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