This Kidnapped Freed Slave Sued for Reparations and Actually Won

Dred Scott, a slave taken to free territories who sued for his freedom in 1857, lost his battle in an infamous Supreme Court ruling due to Chief Justice Roger B. Tanney’s explanation that Scott could not be constitutionally a citizen, therefore he had no right to sue. This left freedmen and current slaves alike to be defined as non-citizens white peers, thus hopeless when it came to earning what they deserved. This all changed in 1868 when the 14th Amendment was ratified, and many plans for reparations were proposed to apologize to the black community for the brutality of slavery. Unfortunately for them, many people saw these proposals as too liberal of ideas, and it never got any real traction. Thus, African-Americans were not granted any type of retribution for what they faced in the past, except for a few exceptions, the biggest being Henrietta Wood.

Cincinnati in 1850, around the time period Wood lived there.

Wood’s Tragic Story

Henrietta “Hattie” Wood was born into bondage in either 1818 or 1820 (records differ) on a plantation owned by the Tousey family in Louisville, Kentucky. After spending her childhood on the farm, she was sold to a French family with whom she moved around the country with until 1847. At this time she was emancipated from slavery and began her life as a freed slave in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. After arriving to the city, she soon continued to work for her previous owner as Mrs. Jane Cerrode, her mistress, owned a boarding house on Sixth street. As the years went by Wood switched professions for better wages and enjoyed life to the extent a black woman could in mid-19th century America. Things quickly went south when she was tricked into entering a carriage by at least two people, one of whom was posing as a Kentucky Sheriff. After entering the vehicle, she was promptly taken back to Kentucky where she was once more enslaved and began another sad period of her life. Wood’s unfortunate reappearance in Kentucky had her moved around to different so-called “slave pens” until one of her kidnappers, Zebulon Ward, took and forced her to care for his young children. Throughout this time Wood faced poor treatment and was often kept in captivity which hurt her mental well-being, leading her to write at the time that “I must be the worst slave of them all.” After some unruly actions, Wood was punished and sold by Ward who deemed she was no longer worth the trouble.

Wood was purchased by a ruthless Texan named Girard (or Gerard) Brandon, who punished his slaves often. For the next fifteen grueling years, Henrietta Wood spent time working as a hand in both the fields and inside the slave owner’s home. After the end of slavery and the passage of the 14th Amendment, black men and women in the United States could officially be citizens, but Wood agreed to work without pay until 1869 due to the promise from Brandon that he would free her in Mississippi in three years time. During her time in Texas, she gave birth to her one and only child, a boy named Arthur. While waiting out the next three years, the woman had to work side-jobs to earn enough money for her and Arthur’s passage back up the Mississippi River to reach Cincinnati. Luckily, Brandon kept his promise and the two were able to head back to Ohio in 1869.

Two Ilustrations of Zebulon Ward, Henrietta Ward’s kidnapper and owner of a so-called “slave pen”.

Getting What She Deserves

Once resettling with Arthur in Cincinnati in 1869, Wood filed a lawsuit against Zeb Ward with the help of her new employer, Harvey Meyers. The suit asked for $15,000-$20,000 due to “being held in slavery…she has been deprived of her time and the value of her labor, worth at least $500 per year, and also that during that period, she was subject to great hardships, abuse, and oppression, and was prevented from returning to her home until April, 1869.” After nine long years of the case moving up levels into federal courts, the courts ruled in the woman’s favor, but for significantly less money, granting Wood $2,500 ($60,000 when adjusted for inflation in 2020). Although this is not nearly enough money to make up for what she went through, Henrietta earned the largest amount of reparations in cash any freed slave ever recieved. In the end, this money allowed her to provide a better life for Arthur, who became a lawyer in Chicago, breaking the sterotypical mold young black men faced at the time. Just as sastisfying, the Wood vs. Ward case put a racist lawbreaker on the wrong side of history forever.

Note: There are no credible images of Henrietta Wood on record, therefore she is not shown in this post.

Works Cited

Cincinnati Commercial, “Henrietta Wood’s 1876 Narrative,” wcaleb Archive, accessed June 15, 2020, http://wcaleb.rice.edu/omeka/items/show/202.

McDaniel, Caleb. Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America. Oxford Press, 2019.

McDaniel, Caleb. “Henrietta Wood,” http://wiki.wcaleb.rice.edu/Henrietta%20Wood#fn25

Time Magazine. “15 Unsung Moments…” 2019. https://time.com/5616397/unsung-american-history/


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