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Réparations. W. Caleb McDaniel, "In 1870, Henrietta Wood Sued for Reparations—and Won", Smithsonian Magazine, septembre 2019.

On April 17, 1878, twelve white jurors entered a federal courtroom in Cincinnati, Ohio, to deliver the verdict in a now-forgotten lawsuit about American slavery. The plaintiff was Henrietta Wood, described by a reporter at the time as “a spectacled negro woman, apparently sixty years old.” The defendant was Zebulon Ward, a white man who had enslaved Wood 25 years before. She was suing him for $20,000 in reparations.

Two days earlier, the jury had watched as Wood took the stand ; her son, Arthur, who lived in Chicago, was in the courtroom. Born into bondage in Kentucky, Wood testified, she had been granted her freedom in Cincinnati in 1848, but five years later she was kidnapped by Ward, who sold her, and she ended up enslaved on a Texas plantation until after the Civil War. She finally returned to Cincinnati in 1869, a free woman. She had not forgotten Ward and sued him the following year.

The trial began only after eight years of litigation, leaving Wood to wonder if she would ever get justice. Now, she watched nervously as the 12 jurors returned to their seats. Finally, they announced a verdict that few expected : “We, the Jury in the above entitled cause, do find for the plaintiff and assess her damages in the premises at Two thousand five hundred dollars.”

Though a fraction of what Wood had asked for, the amount would be worth nearly $65,000 today. It remains the largest known sum ever granted by a U.S. court in restitution for slavery.

But Wood’s name never made it into the history books. When she died in 1912, her suit was already forgotten by all except her son. Today, it remains virtually unknown, even as reparations for slavery are once again in the headlines.

I first learned of Wood from two interviews she gave to reporters in the 1870s. They led me to archives in nine states in search of her story, which I tell in full for the first time in my new book, Sweet Taste of Liberty : A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America .

* * *

Henrietta Wood’s story began two centuries ago with her birth in northern Kentucky.

“I can’t quite tell my age,” Wood recalled in a newspaper interview in 1876, but she knew she was born enslaved to the Tousey family between 1818 and 1820. In 1834, the teenager was bought by a merchant in Louisville and taken from her family. She was soon sold again, to a French immigrant, William Cirode, who took her to New Orleans.

Cirode returned to France in 1844, abandoning his wife, Jane, who eventually took Wood with her to Ohio, a free state. Then, in 1848, Jane Cirode went to a county courthouse and registered Wood as free. “My mistress gave me my freedom,” Wood later said, “and my papers were recorded.” Wood spent the next several years performing domestic work around Cincinnati. She would one day recall that period of her life as a “sweet taste of liberty.”

All the while, however, there were people conspiring to take her freedom away. Cirode’s daughter and son-in-law, Josephine and Robert White, still lived in Kentucky and disagreed with Jane Cirode’s manumission of Wood ; they viewed her as their inheritance. By the 1850s, the interstate slave trade was booming, and the Whites saw dollar signs whenever they thought of Wood. All they needed was someone to do the dirty work of enslaving her again.

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