05 Sep

Opinion The Former Slave Who Sued for Reparations, and Won

Henrietta Wood sued the man who had kidnapped her into slavery for damages and lost wages, offering lessons for today’s debate.


Dr. McDaniel is the author of the “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.”

A 1936 photograph of Brandon Hall in Washington, Miss., where Henrietta Wood was enslaved in the 1850s.

CreditCreditJames Butters/Historic American Buildings Survey, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Cover for Sweet Taste of Liberty

The debate over reparations has re-entered American politics. At congressional hearings, primary debates and across social media many people are talking about what reparations could look like and who might get them.

But the story of Henrietta Wood, a formerly enslaved woman who sued for restitution and won, is missing from the discussion. Her little-known victory offers lessons for today, both about the impact restitution can make and about the limited power of payment alone.

In 1853, Wood was a free black woman living and laboring as a domestic worker in Cincinnati when she was lured across the Ohio River and into the slave state of Kentucky by a white man named Zebulon Ward. Ward sold her to slave traders, who took her to Mississippi. A cotton planter bought her there and later took her to Texas, where she remained enslaved through the Civil War.

Wood eventually returned to Cincinnati, and in 1870 sued Ward for $20,000 in damages and lost wages. In 1878, an all-white jury decided in Wood’s favor, with Ward ordered to pay $2,500, perhaps the largest sum ever awarded by a court in the United States in restitution for slavery.

Though largely forgotten, even by historians, Wood’s case was widely covered by newspapers in 1878, including by The New York Times in an article headlined, “An Unsettled Account.” It was understood at the time that the case raised the question of what formerly enslaved people in general were owed. As The Times put it, “Who will recompense the millions of men and women for the years of liberty of which they have been defrauded?”

Freed people asked that question from the beginning. Present-day demands for reparations build on a long history of struggle that predates Wood’s suit. Yet her victory also stands out as exceptional in that history, a testament to both the revolutionary possibilities created by the Civil War, and their limits.

Wood’s lawsuit would not even have been possible without the Reconstruction Amendments that abolished slavery and expanded citizenship. But Reconstruction also ended without reparations, and by 1878, white Democrats had used force and fraud to overthrow Republican state governments across the former Confederacy. The counterrevolution robbed black citizens of the political power they could have used to pursue reparations laws back then, while former slaveholders and their immediate descendants still lived.

This left the judiciary as one of the few arenas in which former slaves could have advanced restitution claims. Yet that way, too, was riddled with difficulty. A court recognized Wood’s standing to sue because she had been kidnapped, “wrongfully enslaved.” For the millions of people who had been enslaved legally, the courts did not offer clear paths to reparations and Wood’s victory did not result in a wave of other suits.

The story of Callie House, another formerly enslaved woman, shows what happened when black citizens turned from the courts to Congress for relief. In the 1890s, House led a national grass-roots organization that pressured the federal government for pensions for former slaves. As the historian Mary Frances Berry has shown, however, House’s movement was killed by federal officials who falsely accused her of fraud. The Times dismissed House’s movement in 1903 as a “swindle.”

The real fraud was the false story that white Americans increasingly accepted about slavery and the Civil War. By the time Wood died in 1912, paradoxical myths — that slavery was benevolent, but that Confederates had only fought for states’ rights, not to defend it — were widely embraced by white Americans all over the country.

Meanwhile, lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement created new obstacles for reparations and new harms needing redress. Today, supporters of reparations cite the crimes of slavery, as well as 20th-century housing discrimination and racist laws for which the federal government was culpable.

This later history only makes Wood’s achievement during the small window of opportunity opened by Reconstruction more remarkable. Now, another window of opportunity may be opening, this time for policies that seek reparations through legislation, not litigation.

Still, the struggle for reparations remains an uphill battle, and not just because of the emboldened forces of white nationalism in the United States. Some fair-minded critics concede that the nation should acknowledge past wrongs, but doubt that any amount of restitution can redress evils so great. Some, skeptical of Congress’s sincerity, worry that payments would offer politicians premature absolution.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont gave voice to this fear when he said at an N.A.A.C.P. forum in July that if Congress gives African-Americans a $20,000 check, for example, it could then say, “Thank you, that took care of slavery, we don’t have to worry about anything more.”

Wood’s story does offer some grounds for that concern. Though Zebulon Ward paid Wood $2,500, an amount worth more than $60,000 today, he never admitted fault. Before he died, still a wealthy man, he claimed to have signed his check to Wood with a mocking memorandum: “To pay for the last Negro that will ever be paid for in this country.”

Because Wood’s personal victory happened at a time of deepening denial among white Americans about slavery, it also failed to catalyze a larger shift in public opinion on reparations. It was not until 2009 that both houses of Congress had passed separate resolutions apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow, and even then, the Senate’s resolution included a disclaimer withholding support for claims made against the United States.

Confronted by these facts, even Americans inclined to see the justice of reparations may ask whether it is worth the fight that it would take to win them. Perhaps Wood’s example of courageous perseverance, against all the odds, provides answer enough to that question.

We should also notice the differences between her path and current proposals like a House bill that calls for a federal commission to examine the history of slavery and subsequent forms of discrimination against African-Americans and then propose remedies. Reparations authorized by elected representatives after democratic deliberation and a serious reckoning with the past would surely be more powerful than a grudging payment like Ward’s. It would provide a public education and collective acknowledgement that Wood’s individual suit could not by itself supply.

And to those who fear that any payments would be too meager to matter, Wood’s story offers another important lesson: The check that she won substantially benefited her family. Though less than she sought, the money enabled Wood’s son to buy a house in Chicago and attend law school there. Those assets and his long career as a lawyer made a material difference for him and his descendants.

Therefore, while Wood’s story can be seen partly as a tale about the limits of a check without an apology, it also challenges the primary way that Americans have tried to repair slavery and segregation since: apologies without checks. As The Times at least suggested in 1878, the wounds of the past may not be healed until restitution and acknowledgment are finally conjoined.

“We would willingly close this dark chapter in American history,” The Times noted back then. But Henrietta Wood “has opened it again.”

In many ways, it remains open.

W. Caleb McDaniel (@wcaleb) is an associate professor of history at Rice University and the author of “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.”

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