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Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History

The unforgettable saga of one enslaved woman's fight for justice—and reparations

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.

McDaniel's book 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, Sweet Taste of Liberty is a portrait of an extraordinary individual as well as a searing reminder of the lessons of her story, which establish beyond question the connections between slavery and the prison system that rose in its place.

ISBN-13: 9780190846992

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Publication Date: 09-04-2019

Pages: 352

Product Dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

W. Caleb McDaniel is Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Humanities and Professor and Chair of the History Department at Rice University. His website is and he can be found on Twitter at @wcaleb.

Table of Contents


Part I - The Worst Slave of Them All
Chapter 1: The Crossing
Chapter 2: Touseytown
Chapter 3: Down River
Chapter 4: Ward's Return
Chapter 5: Cincinnati
Chapter 6: The Plan
Chapter 7: The Flight

Part II - Forks of the Road
Chapter 8: Raising a Muss
Chapter 9: Wood versus Ward
Chapter 10: The Keeper
Chapter 11: Natchez
Chapter 12: Brandon Hall
Chapter 13: Versailles
Chapter 14: Revolution
Chapter 15: The March

Part III - The Return of Henrietta Wood
Chapter 16: Arthur
Chapter 17: Robertson County
Chapter 18: Dawn and Doom
Chapter 19: Nashville
Chapter 20: A Rather Interesting Case
Chapter 21: Story of a Slave
Chapter 22: The Verdict


Appendix: An Essay on Sources