The Backstory: The little known story about a former slave who sued her captor and won
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Henrietta Wood was a former slave living in Cincinnati when the woman she worked for suggested a carriage ride across the river to Covington, Kentucky. There, she was abducted and forced into slavery – again.
It was the spring of 1853 and a deputy sheriff named Zebulon Ward conspired with Wood's employer to kidnap and sell her. Wood was ultimately sold to slaveholder Gerard Brandon and taken to Natchez, Mississippi, to work in his cotton fields.
Ten years later, the Emancipation Proclamation, in effect Jan. 1, 1863, declared "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."
But this didn’t immediately liberate all slaves, as the Union was still fighting the Civil War (generally considered over on April 9, 1865). As federal troops advanced toward Mississippi, Brandon forced 300 of his slaves – including Wood and her young son, Arthur – to march 400 miles to Robertson County, Texas, where he set up new operations near the Brazos River.
"The reason why people like Brandon went to Texas was because they knew that if they could get to interior Texas where U.S. troops had not yet reached, they could hold out as long as they could," says historian W. Caleb McDaniel, who teaches at Rice University. "So I think Texas became a place where die-hard slavers went to try to wait out the war and see if slavery could survive."
It would be two more years, on June 19, 1865, before troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and forced slaveholders to free their slaves. This is now known as ratified at the end of 1865, would abolish all slavery.)
That moment in Texas when "die-hard" slaveholders like Brandon had nowhere else to run, that was 155 years ago today.
Wood's journey is recounted in McDaniel's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Sweet Taste of Liberty, A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America." How did the learn about Wood? Newspapers.
Wood gave just two interviews about her ordeal. First was to the Cincinnati Commercial (once a sister paper to the current Cincinnati Enquirer). The second was to the Ripley (Ohio) Bee.
Early newspapers "are a gold mine for late 19th-century stories," McDaniel said. "I think there are a lot of stories still to be told of people whose experiences were recorded in these papers, but are waiting for investigation."
Federal troops may have freed slaves in Texas, but that didn't mean those men, women and children could easily go back to their 真人百家家乐官网网站homes or reunite with family. They had been marched hundreds of miles from 真人百家家乐官网网站home, with little or no support to get back. And, McDaniel writes, the roads leading out of town were violent and dangerous for the former slaves. Some white planters abducted freed slaves and took them to Cuba or Brazil, where slavery was still legal.
Wood signed a contract to work for Brandon for three more years for $10 a month in Texas and then in Mississippi. She told the Commercial she was never paid. She and Arthur made it back to the Cincinnati area in 1869. In Covington, she began working for an attorney named Harvey Myers, McDaniel writes. And he began working for her, filing a lawsuit against Ward for reparations, $20,000 in lost wages for the time she was enslaved.
Ward was then one of the wealthiest men in the South, making a fortune on convict-leasing schemes. His legal team created delay after delay, McDaniel writes. The case had dragged on for 72 months when reporter Lafcadio Hearn showed up at Wood's door.
He asked Wood to share her story "before freedom." The next day, April 2, 1876, a nearly 4,000-word story ran in the Commercial with the headline "Story of a Slave."
Wood started her story with, "I can't quite tell my age...but I guess I must be about 58 or 59 years old..."
The lawsuit, Wood vs. Ward, was rekindled and two years later the case was brought before a jury of 12 white men. The Enquirer reported that Wood was in the courtroom as well as Arthur. The jury sided with Wood and ordered Ward to pay her $2,500 in damages. McDaniel writes, "It remains the largest known sum ever awarded by a US court in restitution for slavery.”
McDaniel was originally doing research on refugee slaves in Texas when he was tipped off to Wood's story in the Bee. He later found the Commercial article. He knew she needed a book of her own.
"A lot of people are saying, 'Why haven't I heard of this story before?' " McDaniel says. "The reaction tells me that individual stories of human beings surviving a system like slavery are very powerful. I think there's a lot to be said for data in understanding systemic racism. But the current protests in the country, for example, are showing us that saying someone's name and putting a life together with that aggregate picture is powerful and necessary.
"In her case we don't have a picture or a photograph, but my hope is that when someone reads the book, you have a chance to empathize with someone like her as more than just an abstraction."
Wood's son, Arthur, became a successful Chicago attorney. McDaniel was able to talk to his great-granddaughter, Winona Adkins, and dedicated the book to her. "It's not something that happened in a long ago past. It is still very close to us," McDaniel said. "That helps explain why the legacies of slavery and white supremacy continue to live on."
Henrietta Wood wanted her story told, as dangerous as that must have been.
McDaniel was able to write with such richness because of his extensive research and because she first shared her experiences on the pages of two newspapers.
Today, on Juneteenth, I wanted to make it three.
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