W. Caleb McDaniel teaches history at Rice University. His first book, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery, won the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians and the James Broussard Prize from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.
He recently published Sweet Taste of Liberty, the story of an American slave and her successful fight to receive restitution for her days of slavery.
In 1848, Henrietta Wood was an enslaved woman living in northern Kentucky when she was taken across the river to the free state of Ohio and given her freedom papers. Years later, Wood recalled that it was in Cincinnati she had her first “sweet taste of liberty.”
Wood lived peacefully and in freedom for five years until 1853 when she was kidnapped, forcibly returned to Kentucky, and sold into slavery. The next decade saw her taken various places, eventually all the way to Texas where she remained until after the Civil War.
A few years after being freed a second time, Harriet returned to Cincinnati and became determined to seek justice.
The 1870s was not a decade noted for great strides in civil rights, but Harriet proved an exception. She eventually sued one of her oppressors, Zebulon Ward, a deputy sheriff who had colluded with Harriet’s employer in Cincinnati in her kidnapping.
Ward’s story is also told. Over the decades he rose to become one of the South’s wealthiest men as a “keeper” of state prisons in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Ward used convict labor through leasing schemes and enriched himself beyond measure. It was not a coincidence that laws were passed to insure that most of the inmates were black men arrested on minor charges.
At the time of Harriet’s kidnapping in 1853, Ward was a stranger to her, but she never forgot him during all the years of her re-enslavement. In 1870, she sued Ward for $20,000 for damages and lost wages.
The case dragged on for years, but eventually and amazingly Harriet won. In 1878, a federal jury awarded her $2,500. Although it was only a fraction of her original demand and far less than what Ward could have afforded to pay, the amount remains the largest financial settlement awarded by an American court in restitution for slavery.
Sweet Taste of Liberty is the story of one remarkable woman, who, against all odds, received recognition of herself as a human being. It also reminds the reader that freedom can be taken away and tells the reader, in detail, what black Americans faced following the Civil War.
To say Sweet Taste of Liberty is a powerful book would be a gross understatement. It should be required reading for all students.
Sweet Taste of Liberty is now on the shelves of Stokely Memorial Library, which is open Mondays—Saturdays from 10-5 and may be reached by telephone at 423-623-3832.