Henrietta Wood, won the first reparations lawsuit

Herb Boyd | 9/5/2019, 3:38 p.m.
When it comes to reparations and its history, I have often cited its origins to Callie House, Rev. Isaiah Dickerson ...

When it comes to reparations and its history, I have often cited its origins to Callie House, Rev. Isaiah Dickerson and their National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, which they established in 1894. But recently I was alerted to the story of Henrietta Wood, a free Black woman in Cincinnati, Ohio who was tricked into Kentucky in 1853 and subsequently kidnapped, and I was reminded of Solomon Northup’s trauma.

After enduring sales to several owners, Wood sued her captors and a court in 1878 awarded her $2,500, thus making her one of the first formerly enslaved to earn reparations.

Wood’s story, though, is much more complicated than a verdict in her favor. Her life was one of shifting narratives that often took some unexpectedly terrible turns, even as it ended in success.

Born a slave in Kentucky and enslaved by the Tousey Family, she was freed in 1840; however, her manumission became a contentious issue with disputations that it was illegally processed. Some members of the Tousey family, where Wood had lived until she was 14, accepted money from a Zebulon Ward, who then orchestrated Wood’s kidnapping in 1853 and sale to slave traders in Lexington, Kentucky.

In one account, Wood recalled how she gained her freedom after being sold from one owner to another. “After I had worked at cooking and washing in the boarding house for one year, my mistress [Mrs. Cerrode] gave me my freedom, and my papers were recorded. I worked for her two years more, but she would never pay me regular wages—only gave me a little money from time to time. So I left her at last.”

Hearing of Wood’s dilemma, local abolitionists rushed to her defense to halt the sale but were unsuccessful and she was eventually sold to Gerard Brandon, a Natchez, Mississippi cotton planter, who transported her to Texas in 1863. Two years later, at the conclusion of the Civil War, Wood brought her suit against Ward for the kidnapping, seeking $15,000 to $20,000 in damages and lost wages. A lower court upheld her suit and she was granted $2,500.

Wood could have also included Brandon in her lawsuit since he had promised to pay her if she remained working for him for three years after the war. She kept her promise, journalist Lafcadio Hearn wrote, but “He never paid her a cent for her labor all those three years, but raising hogs and chickens for market, she at last managed to save 25 dollars with which she paid her passage and that of her only child, a boy, back to Cincinnati, after an absence of 20 years. Her boy is now in Chicago and doing well.”

In 1879, Wood told her harrowing story to a Cincinnati newspaper, the Ripley Bee, and it was published in four parts. Three years earlier, Hearn, a reporter for the city’s Commercial and known for his colorful depictions of Black culture and its people, conducted an interview with Wood, though there were some accounts that attributed the interview to another reporter. She offered vivid details of her slave experience, particularly the time she spent under Mrs. Ward’s watch.