Sweet Taste of Liberty
A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
From Oxford University Press, the unforgettable saga of one enslaved woman's fight for justice—and reparations.
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- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History
- Winner of the Avery O. Craven Award
- Finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize
Born into slavery, Henrietta Wood was taken to Cincinnati and legally freed in 1848. In 1853, a Kentucky deputy sheriff named Zebulon Ward colluded with Wood’s employer, abducted her, and sold her back into bondage. She remained enslaved throughout the Civil War, giving birth to a son in Mississippi and never forgetting who had put her in this position.
By 1869, Wood had obtained her freedom for a second time and returned to Cincinnati, where she sued Ward for damages in 1870. Astonishingly, after eight years of litigation, Wood won her case: in 1878, a Federal jury awarded her $2,500. The decision stuck on appeal. More important than the amount, though the largest ever awarded by an American court in restitution for slavery, was the fact that any money was awarded at all. By the time the case was decided, Ward had become a wealthy businessman and a pioneer of convict leasing in the South. Wood’s son later became a prominent Chicago lawyer, and she went on to live until 1912.
Sweet Taste of Liberty is an epic tale of a black woman who survived slavery twice and who achieved more than merely a moral victory over one of her oppressors. Above all, it is a portrait of an extraordinary woman and a searing reminder of the lessons of her story as Americans continue to debate reparations for slavery.
- A conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones and Jeffrey C. Stewart for Oxford University Press.
- A short documentary about Wood for WGN’s Backstory with Larry Potash.
- My op-ed for the New York Times about Wood and the reparations debate.
- Wood’s story in the September 2019 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.
- An op-ed in the Houston Chronicle draws on Wood’s story to highlight what abolition left undone.
- Read about Wood’s victory as one of 15 Unsung Moments From American History on TIME.com.
- Peek at a page of the book on The Page 99 Test.
A masterfully researched meditation on reparations based on the remarkable story of a 19th century woman who survived kidnapping and re-enslavement to sue her captor.
Readers might never have heard of Henrietta Wood before, but after reading Sweet Taste of Liberty, they will never forget her. … Sweet Taste of Liberty ultimately challenges us to revisit the question of what, exactly, did emancipation mean.
—Avery O. Craven Award citation
In this gripping study, Rice University historian McDaniel recounts the painful but triumphant story of one enslaved woman’s long fight for justice. … McDaniel tells this story engrossingly and accessibly. This is a valuable contribution to Reconstruction history with clear relevance to current debates about reparations for slavery.
An enthralling biography of a determined, resilient woman … Recommended for both academic and general readers.
[A] superbly written chronicle … Wood’s story, as presented by Mr. McDaniel, abounds with contextual detail. He deftly integrates court records with fine-grained background stories of Wood’s enslavers and lawyers, all the while presenting a panorama of antebellum and post-Civil War America.
Henrietta Wood’s quest to be made whole by seeking reparations from the man who kidnapped and re-enslaved her is a heart-tugging page-turner. With fidelity to the historical record and insight into the emotions that run through it, Caleb McDaniel’s Sweet Taste of Liberty tells how enslaved women lived along the jagged lines that divided house and field, city and countryside, North and South, and slavery and freedom. Her triumph is a tribute to one woman’s persistence, courage, legal savvy, and an enduring devotion to family—its lessons for us are timeless.
—Martha S. Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Johns Hopkins University, author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America
As America grapples with reparations for slavery, Caleb McDaniel unearths the astounding story of a woman who survived bondage, twice, and fought for restitution against impossible odds. In lucid and vivid prose, he brings us a chilling, inspiring, and timely examination of both the necessity and complexity of redressing historical crimes.
This is one of the best books I have ever read. Using an extraordinary archival discovery, Caleb McDaniel expertly weaves together the life of Henrietta Wood, a woman enslaved in Kentucky and Louisiana, freed in Ohio, enslaved again, this time illegally, in Mississippi and Texas, and then freed again by the Civil War. McDaniel narrates Wood’s life in both slavery and freedom, and her determined pursuit of justice and reparations. More than simply a biography, here is a work of profound analysis, layered with a deep knowledge of slavery, emancipation, and the law. It raises the most profound questions about the debt that the United States owes to the people whose unfree labor in large part constructed it. Sweet Taste of Liberty is a masterpiece.
—Gregory P. Downs, author of The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic
None of the people in these books is well-known, even to historians. They left almost none of their own papers; most of them could not write. Yet through painstaking archival research, Bell and McDaniel have reconstructed their lives with such vivid detail, sensitivity, and riveting storytelling that you would think each of their figures left us whole autobiographies. For the simple act of recovering their stories, both books would be commendable. But what makes them essential reading is the larger questions they demand of us as readers: What exactly was the condition under which un-enslaved black people lived before emancipation—and what is it that they and their descendants are owed?
Sweet Taste of Liberty is a profound book that could not have been released at a better time. … It is an account brimming with as much bittersweetness as it does hope.
Beautifully written and raises profound questions about how we understand the relationship between slavery and freedom in the mid-19th century. … Henrietta Wood is my new hero.
—Kevin Levin, author of Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, via Twitter
Author W. Caleb McDaniel tells a breathless tale with an ominously dark feel through many of its pages, because the monsters here were real. Yes, it’s a complicated tale that races from north to south, but the righteous audacity that ultimately occurred in Ohio in 1870 makes it worthwhile, fist-pumping, and satisfying.
Researchers, leisurely readers and those in the general public looking to be more informed about the history of slavery and reparations in this country, would be hard-pressed not to find this book compelling. It is a story that deserves to be heard and a conversation that needs to be had.
The writing of this book was supported by a Public Scholar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.