Donated Book - Now available at Samuels Public Library
Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
By W.Caleb McDaniel
“A Masterly researched mediation on reparations based on the remarkable story of a 19th- century woman who survived kidnapping and re-enslavement to sue her captor.” -Pulitzer Prize Committee
“Zebulon Ward of Arkansas liked to say that he was the last American ever to pay for a slave. It would have been a doubtful honor even if it were true….Ward’s story, however was dubious itself, and the true story brought him no honor at all. Eight years before the Civil War began, he had kidnapped a free woman and sold her as a slave.” Thus begins this extraordinary book that won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2020.
In April 1848, Henrietta Woods, an enslaved woman, was taken from her home in Kentucky (a slave state) to Ohio (a free state) and given her freedom papers. In Cincinnati, Wood later recalled, she had her first “sweet taste of liberty.” In 1853, five years later, she was kidnapped, forcibly taken back to Kentucky, and re-enslaved. Wood was ultimately bought by a cotton planter who took her to Texas, where she would remain until after the Civil War. A few years after she was freed for a second time, she returned to Cincinnati determined to seek justice.
In Sweet Taste of Liberty, W. Caleb McDaniel weaves together all the elements and sources to tell Henrietta Wood’s story – that of a woman who survived enslavement twice and took one of her oppressors to court. It is also the story of Zebulon Ward, a deputy sheriff who had colluded with Wood’s employer in Cincinnati in her kidnapping. After the abduction, Ward became one of the South’s wealthiest men by becoming the “keeper” of state prisons in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas, using convict leasing schemes and inmate labor to enrich himself. Though Ward was a stranger to her at the time of her capture in 1853, Wood would remember him throughout her re-enslavement. In 1870, after she had regained her freedom and returned to Cincinnati, Henrietta Wood sued Zebulon Ward for $20,000 in damages and lost wages.
Astonishingly, Wood won her case. In 1878, a federal jury awarded her $2,500. Though only a fraction of her original demand, and far less than what a man like Ward could have afforded to pay, the amount remains the largest financial settlement by an American court in restitution for slavery.
Henrietta Wood’s story provides a reminder that emancipation alone was never enough – that freedom had to be taken and could not be merely given. It also illuminates what black Americans faced following the Civil Wat and proves the connections between slavery and the prison system that rose in its place. Above all, however, Sweet Taste of Liberty offers a stirring and indelible portrait of an extraordinary woman who sought, against all odds, to win reparations for slavery.
Don’t let the fact that this book is a history stop you from reading it. Sweet Taste of Liberty reads like a novel that never slows its pace until the very last sentence. On July 10, 1879, when a final document was filed with the Circuit Court – a receipt acknowledging that Ward had paid the final installment of $2,000, - the Clerk of Court stamped it, “Henrietta Wood vs. Zeb Ward.” Then he carefully penned the proper name for the legal document. It was a “Satisfaction.”
- Caleb McDaniel teaches history at Rice University, where he also serves as magister of Duncan College. His first book, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery, won the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians and the James Broussard Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. He lives in Houston.