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NY Times Op-Ed, Sept. 5, 2019
The Former Slave Who Sued for Reparations, and Won
By W. Caleb McDaniel
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
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
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
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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