The topic of reparations has been a contentious debate since the end of the Civil War over a century ago. But in the immediate aftermath of the war, one woman successfully sued a man she claimed illegally kidnapped her and forced into servitude. Her name? Henrietta Wood.
Join me this week as I dive into the history of Henrietta Wood and her judgment as the largest reparations payment ever awarded in United States history.
Blakemore, Erin. “The Thorny History of Reparations in the United States.” History. Aug 28, 2019. (LINK)
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic. June 2014. (LINK)
Davis, Allen. “An Historical Timeline of Reparations Payments Made From 1783 through 2022 by the United States Government, States, Cities, Religious Institutions, Universities, Corporations, and Communities.” Updated January 13, 2022. (LINK)
Jones, Reinette F. “Wood, Henrietta.” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database. August 19, 2016. (LINK)
McDaniel, William Caleb. Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America. United States: Oxford University Press, 2019.
”The Story of a Slave.” Cincinnati Commercial. April 2, 1876. (LINK)
U.S. Congress. House. Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, HR 40, 117th Cong., introduced January 4, 2021. (LINK)
“The above named plaintiff a single woman says, that she was on or about the day of ____ in the year 1853, and for many years previous thereto a free mullato woman residing in the city of Cincinnati in the State of Ohio, and that the defendant Zeb Ward, together with one Rebecca Boyd and other persons, whose names are to the plaintiff unknown, contriving to deprive the plaintiff of her liberty, and to convey and sell her into slavery for life, for gain and profit to themselves, did cause the plaintiff to be kidnapped and abducted from her place of abode in Cincinnati, and to be delivered to the defendant Zeb Ward in the State of Kentucky.” June 30, 1870.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
As I’ve covered several times over the course of the podcast, the institution of slavery was a pervasive and lucrative economic staple of the country’s early years. From the tobacco crop to domestic service; construction to pulling cotton; thousands of american families built their wealth by the enslavement of others. And as I’ve also covered, this economic system continued to flourish even with the outlawing of the international slave trade in the early 19th century. Between 1808 and 1865, plantation owners and the planter class dealt in black bodies, often increasing their overall capital by the accumulation of additional human beings. This model prompted some to seek their human assets through illicit means such as kidnapping free individuals living in the north.
And once the Civil War ended and slavery was considered legally a thing of the past, the question cropped to the surface by some: what were the individuals formerly held in bondage entitled to in return for their years of forced servitude? The idea of reparations has made headlines over the years, but it is a question that’s been reviewed and analyzed for centuries. One of the questions typically asked is - has anyone ever been successful at gaining reparations? The short answer is: yes.
This week’s topic comes to you via a listener request. Marlen suggested I look into the history of Henrietta Wood, a woman who not only sued for reparations, but who secured the largest payment in United States history to date. So, just who was Henrietta Wood? What makes her case stand out? And what does it say about the argument for reparations in current conversations?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Henrietta Wood was born into slavery in Kentucky in either 1818 or 1820 in a farm along a creek located in a place known as Touseytown. The town got its namesake from the prominent family in the area, who also claimed ownership of Henrietta and a few other black americans. Her childhood home, if we can call it that, sat along the Ohio River; a body of water that acted as her only barrier to free soil, with the free state of Ohio just a short distance away. Wood remained under the ownership of the Tousey family until the patriarch passed away when she was 14. In interviews recounting her story later in life, Wood classified her next owner as mean and reported of being flogged frequently for failing to live up to the demands of the job. Her duties in her new home consisted mostly of cooking, washing and cleaning the house.
Two years later she was sold again; this time to a French family for $700 or $800. She boarded a steamboat, the William French, and made her way down river to her new home in New Orleans. The southern slave market was volatile and it wasn’t an uncommon practice to frequently buy and sell individuals on annual basis. Somehow Wood managed to escape this fate and remained with the Cirode family for about seven years. Wood’s life was again tied to the patriarch of the family who, having hit rough times, left his wife and family behind in an attempt to escape creditors. This left Henrietta with the lady of the house, Jane Cirode, who eventually moved up to Ohio where Henrietta was technically free.
Cirode delayed registering Wood with the local court house, a requirement in order to formalize acknowledgment of Wood’s free status, but finally, in 1848 - roughly a year after their arrival, Wood was legally free. Once her quote “papers were recorded” end quote, Wood remained under the employ of Cirode for an additional two years never earning a stable wage. After leaving Cirode, Wood found work as a chambermaid at various boarding houses, eventually landing a job in a boarding house run by Rebecca Boyd. Again Wood was promised wages never delivered, but Boyd did much worse than fail to pay her employee.
As Wood later shared, one Sunday evening Boyd asked Henrietta if she wanted to join her for a carriage ride across the river. She agreed and piled into the vehicle along with Boyd. The shades were drawn, something Henrietta didn’t originally find suspicious. Unfortunately, once across the river and in slave country, Wood was met by a man who would later be the source of her reparations lawsuit, Zebulon Ward. According to Ward, who was serving as the local sheriff, Wood was a slave and therefore needed to be taken back into custody.
But how did Ward get involved? In his detailed analysis of the life and lawsuits of Henrietta Wood, W. Caleb McDaniel explains how manumission wasn’t always a secure form of freedom. In the case of Henrietta, though her former owner Jane Cirode had given her freedom while living in Ohio, Cirode’s daughter, Josephine, felt Wood was her property, not her mother’s, and therefore had no authority to grant Henrietta her freedom. As such, Josephine and her husband Robert White hatched a plan to recapture Wood and force her back into slavery - or at least benefit financially from her potential capital. As McDaniel describes quote, “before she could be sold, she would have to be abducted. Before she could be abducted, she would have to be found. The Whites wanted the money from a sale, but they did not want the dirty work that would have be done,” end quote.
As such, the Whites entered into an agreement with the acting sheriff and made him an offer that could provide quite a windfall. For an upfront cash payment of $300, White agreed to release his supposed property rights and Ward was free to pocket any profit from any potential sale upon Wood’s capture. Of course, the deal also meant Ward took on the risk of tracking Henrietta down and figuring out how to re-enslave her. While it may sound risky on the surface to approach a sheriff, it was unfortunately not all that uncommon. Many kidnapping rings worked with law enforcement to help keep their operations open and human capital flowing, as they were considered a reliable source to reinforce their cover stories of simply recapturing runaway slaves.
Thus, with the plan hatched and money paid, Ward went to work. Upon her capture it was evident her boss, Rebecca Boyd, had a hand in the plot. As Henrietta was forced from the carriage, she watched Boyd accept a wad of money from her captors all the while laughing and confirming Wood was free. Several others were implicated in her disappearance, including a black man John Gilbert who, along with Rebecca Boyd, was later arrested for the charge of kidnapping. According to an article in the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, quote: “Yesterday morning, a colored man named John Gilbert, and a white woman named Rebecca Boyd, were brought before Esquire Chidsey, on a charge of kidnapping a colored woman named Henrietta” end quote. The article went on to describe how Wood was Boyd’s employee and claimed to be free. Both Boyd and Gilbert were held in custody, but were later acquitted.
So began a sixteen year journey of forced servitude and legal attempts to secure her freedom. Shortly after her arrival in Kentucky, her abductors asked about the location of her papers, which were unluckily held in a trunk at Boyd’s home. As the court house which held records of all who were registered burned down, Henrietta’s only evidence of her freedom remained firmly outside of her grasp. In preparation for her potential sale further south, Wood was moved to a slave pen, which was a prison of sorts, belonging to known slave trader Lewis Robards.
However, her community noticed her absence and worked to gain her freedom by filing a lawsuit. Many worked on her behalf to try to prove she was a free person, and her freedom suit, as it was referred to, was filed shortly after her kidnapping in 1853. The first defendant, Lewis Robards, was quickly replaced by the man who hatched the plot to capture her and who would ultimately benefit from her sale, Zeb Ward. And if you remember from my episode a few weeks back about the kidnapping of black americans, then you may recall it was very much an uphill battle to prove an individual’s freedom. Black plaintiffs were assumed to be a slave and had to prove otherwise, however were prohibited from testifying on their own behalf. Black men and women were altogether barred from participating in the legal process as they were unable to testify in any suit. As a result, unless there was a white person willing to testify or some other irrefutable evidence provided attesting to one’s status as free, they were often found to be a slave and had no further recourse.
Because she was considered a slave, Henrietta remained held in a slave pen and was forced to work for the individuals who claimed to own her, though their very ownership was under question before the court. For the twelve months her case was pending, Wood performed labor and helped increase the profits of the man she was suing. Unfortunately, as was typical of the time, Henrietta was determined to be a slave and her freedom suit was dismissed. After losing her appeal six months later, Wood was transported further south and put on the selling block in Natchez, Mississippi one of the largest slave markets in the country.
Though there was interest in Wood’s services from a man living locally, Ward had provided specific instructions to the traders overseeing the human market that Henrietta was not to be sold to anyone who lived in town to avoid the risk of her filing another suit in court. Instead, Ward stipulated, Wood should be sold to a plantation owner far from the city center. The man who met that requirement was Gerard Brandon. A planter who held hundreds of human beings in servitude over several plantations, Brandon purchased Henrietta and put her to work in the cotton fields.
Henrietta had no experience working in cotton, having spent her time as a slave working in the house and her inexperience angered her new owner. As was typical of the time, Wood was punished harshly for her deficiencies including severe beatings. Describing the whippings later in life, Wood said quote: “every stroke would leave a gash just like you had drawn a knife across my back, and sometimes when they thought it didn’t hurt me enough, they would sprinkle salt on the raw flesh,” end quote.
Henrietta not only suffered a physical toll in her forced home, but an emotional toll as well. She later shared with reporters not only her experience, but watching other women being forcibly staked to the ground and having their clothes pushed over their heads to allow the whip unfettered access to their flesh. Her story was so gory that even the journalist at the time omitted further details.
Finally understanding Wood’s fingers were too large to adequately pick cotton cleanly, Henrietta was placed back into an environment she was more familiar with: the main mansion. Here she resumed duties she had long since mastered including laundry, cooking and watching after the Brandon children. Wood remained part of the Brandon home for several years, including the Civil War. Brandon, seeing the advancement of the Union army and hoping to preserve his human based wealth, fled his plantation in Mississippi and headed towards Texas.
Texas was seen as a safe haven of sorts, where the planting class could set up cotton fields and put their slaves to work, outside of the influence or interference of the federal government. However, the journey was not an easy one and Brandon, who packed up and headed out in the peak of the summer heat on July 1st, 1863, made the journey all the more arduous by forcing the bondsmen and women to walk. Wood, who was one of many enslaved individuals Brandon included in his forced march, saw her health fade and reported being sick for nearly a year after the relocation.
Despite the emancipation proclamation - and the notification by federal troops of their freedom two years later - Wood, and other enslaved men and women - remained with Brandon. It may seem counterintuitive to stay, however it is important to remember what the landscape looked like in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Though Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865, it was limited it what support it could provide and despite the end of the war there was still open hostility against black americans hoping to secure their freedom. The truth is, their reason for staying is as diverse and wide ranging as their backgrounds. In Henrietta’s case, it could be she decided to stay for one simple reason: providing for her son.
On January 1st, 1856, Henrietta gave birth to a little boy she named Arthur Simms. His paternity remains unknown, but given Henrietta’s capture in 1853, it is likely Arthur’s father was one of the men tasked with monitoring her work as an accused slave. So at the war’s end, faced with the uncertainty of what freedom meant or the known conditions of remaining with the family she’d become accustomed to, Wood chose the known commodity. Entering into a contract with Brandon, Wood agreed to provide her services for three years in exchange for room and board for her and Arthur and a small salary, which of course was never fully paid.
After successfully completing her end of the contract, and after sixteen years of forced servitude, Henrietta again went north to familiar surroundings and set up a new life for herself and her son. But she had not forgotten the grave injustice she suffered at the hands of others and upon her arrival in Cincinnati, Wood filed another lawsuit against Zeb Ward. In her claim, of which a portion was read at the top of the episode, Wood charged Ward with illegally capturing her and sought damages for her lost wages and restitution in the amount of $20,000.
By the time of the lawsuit’s initiation in 1870, Zeb Ward was quite a successful man. Having earned a substantial sum overseeing a few prisons and plantations, he had the means with which to issue restitution, should Henrietta win her case. But given he was a man of means, he could also afford to try to starve out the other side through delay tactics; and this was exactly the strategy his legal team took. And boy did it work. After successfully getting the case moved from state to federal court, Ward’s legal team submitted rebuttal after rebuttal, forcing Wood’s lawyer to resubmit documents just to get the case heard. It wasn’t until 1873, some three years after the initiation of the lawsuit, that Henrietta’s claim was issued a case number. It would be another five years before the trial commenced.
Despite the delay, Henrietta got her day in court as the trial of Wood v Ward began on April 15th, 1878. It had been eight years since she filed and twenty five years since her illegal capture, but patience won out. After only three days of trial, the jury came back with their verdict. Quote: “we, the jury in the above entitled cause, do find for the plaintiff and assess her damages in the premises of two thousand five hundred dollars,” end quote. The judgment, which is estimated at around $65,000 in current dollars, remains the largest award ever issued as repayment for slavery in United States history.
If you are thinking to yourself, “that’s it?” you are not alone. Commenting about Wood’s victory, one article highlighted quote, “the damages awarded the twice emancipated colored woman seem trivial in comparison to the amount of suffering she underwent,” end quote. In the aftermath of the Civil War, many in the country struggled with just how to compensate the individuals who were forced into bondage for decades. And as we’ve learned in our history class, the country never quite figured out how to make good on the question.
While Henrietta Wood successfully secured the largest payment for reparations in United States history, she wasn’t the first one to seek restitution. Demands for pensions or other compensation go back as far as 1783. But Wood is significant not only because of the awarded amount but also as an example of what compensation meant for generational mobility - which is one of the arguments many those in favor of reparations make. In Wood’s case, the judgment she received from Zeb Ward was enough for her and her son Arthur to move to Chicago, where he bought a house in cash. Arthur also used a portion of that money and the equity he built in his home, to fund his education as a lawyer.
One of the largest arguments against reparations is that the injustice of slavery is so far in the past that determining who should get paid and what amount would be impossible to determine. Many argue that demands for reparations should have occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when the horror of the slave system was fresh in the minds of the country. But as Wood’s case demonstrates, lawsuits during this time period weren’t all that easy to establish either. Wood had several hurdles to clear before she won her judgment. First, she had to find a lawyer who would be willing to take her case without receiving much, if any, payment. Second, she had to counter each and every delay tactic put forth by the opposing side. Third, she had to hope the jury - still predominantly composed of white men - would believe her plea and decide in her favor. And despite her case being in the north, racial tensions and white supremacy was still very much the feeling of the day. Wood was lucky; and even in her victory, she still had to wait over a year to receive her payment in full.
The country was then, as it is now, in disagreement over what was due to former slaves and their descendants, if anything. While many thought these newly freed individuals were due some form of repayment or pension, just as many believed they were due nothing. In an 1891 newspaper editorial, one author argued quote, “they have been taught to labor. They have been taught Christian civilization, and to speak the noble English language instead of some African gibberish. The account is square with the ex-slaves,” end quote.
The idea of reparations and what it might look like continues to be a topic of hot debate. Since 1989, a bill proposing a study of slavery and it’s impacts has been put forth on the house floor for consideration. Originally introduced by Michigan Representative John Conyers, the bill, now known as H.R. 40 would provide funding for a commission to quote: “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery,” end quote. As of this recording, the bill has not yet made it out of the house.
Wherever one lands on the idea of reparations, I think Quaker preacher John Woolman had it right in 1769 when he said quote: “a heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us. And that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them,” end quote.
A big thank you to Marlen for requesting this topic. I am consistently so blown away by the things you all request and always learn something new.
Before I sign off today, I wanted to share some news. If you’ve followed the pod on social media then you are likely aware I will begin graduate school next month. My sincerest hope, dear friends, is to continue with my weekly narratives. I’ve been hard at work this summer trying to get more ahead than usual to give myself some breathing room. I have a few fun things planned to mix it up and I hope all of these things will carry us through my first semester as I get used to the new grind. I share this to say two things: one, I hope you forgive me if I have to miss a week and more importantly, thank you. If it wasn’t for all of your wonderful feedback, engagement and support I do not think I would have decided to take on this journey. You mean more to me than words can express and so I am left with what I feel to be an inadequate expression of my gratitude. Thank you for taking this trip with me; thank you for coming back every week; and thank you for helping discover a new piece of myself. You are the world’s greatest listeners.
Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.