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Born into slavery, in 1848 Henrietta Wood was taken to Cincinnati and legally freed. In 1855, a wealthy Kentucky businessman named Zebulon Ward colluded with Wood's employer, abducted her, and sold her back into bondage. She remained enslaved throughout the Civil War and for two years after it had ended, giving birth to a son and never forgetting who had put her in this position. In 1867, she obtained her freedom for a second time and returned to Cincinnati, where she sued Ward for damages. Astonishingly, after ten 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. Wood's son 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 struggled against a monolithic system of oppression and who achieved more than merely a moral victory over it. Above all, Sweet Taste of Liberty is a portrait of an extraordinary individual as well as a searing reminder of the lessons of her case, which establish beyond question the connection between slavery and the prison system.
W. Caleb McDaniel is Associate Professor of History at Rice University
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