Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s talk headlines Detroit Mercy’s Black History Month events

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January 15, 2021

W. Caleb McDaniel portrait.A talk by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author opens University of Detroit Mercy’s Black History Month 2021 celebration.

W. Caleb McDaniel will discuss his book Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America in a virtual format Feb. 2 from 6:30-8 p.m.

Sweet Taste of Liberty tells the story of Henrietta Wood, who twice survived slavery and successfully sued her captor, receiving the largest-known amount of restitution for slavery awarded by a federal court. The book earned the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History.

“It was not a very widely known story before I got started on the research for the book,” said McDaniel, who is the Mary Gibbs Jones professor of Humanities and chair of the History department at Rice University. “I think it’s important to include the lives of African American women in the ways that we tell American history, because their experience provides a perspective on the nation’s history.”

Wood’s story is one of courageousness and determination.

Born into slavery in Kentucky, Wood gained her freedom legally in 1848. That liberty was short-lived, however, as Wood was kidnapped five years later while living in Cincinnati, Ohio — a free state — and sold back into slavery. Freed again by the Civil War, Wood sued her captor, Zebulon Ward, for restitution in 1870 and after eight years of litigation, was awarded $2,500.

McDaniel first learned of Wood in 2014 after discovering a newspaper interview she gave in 1879.

“That captured my attention partly because, of course, there was a lot of attention around the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and also Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic Magazine article, The Case for Reparations, and that had revived public debates about how to reckon with and repair the historical wrongs of slavery,” McDaniel said. “So, it seemed to me that Wood’s case provided an instance of restitution that might inform those debates because she won her case.”

The pursuit of Wood’s story took McDaniel across the country as he searched archives in nine states to piece together American history.

“I couldn’t have written the book without, first of all, her own determination to tell her story and have it told, because she spoke with newspaper reporters during her lifetime on several occasions,” McDaniel said. “She made her petition to the court that laid out her story, and each time she told her story in those venues, she included dates and names that provided me with clues to find other sources in those various archives that could put together the puzzle and come up with more of a complete picture of what happened.”

Conversations about racial justice, reparations and similar topics have grown in the time McDaniel was working on the book and he believes her story can help Americans addressing the same issues today.

“I think one thing that her story demonstrates is how even a small amount of restitution can make a difference in a family like hers,” McDaniel said.

Wood’s reward, worth roughly $65,000 today, was far less than the $20,000 she had sued for, but its impact on her family was profound. It helped Wood’s son, Arthur H. Simms, purchase a house and attend law school, jumpstarting a lengthy career as a lawyer.

“In the book, I follow how her family and descendants benefitted well into the 20th Century,” McDaniel said. “I think at the same time, it’s a story about the limitations of restitution pursued in the courts, as she did, because the man she sued, Zebulon Ward, fought her tooth and nail to the very end and never really acknowledged that he had done anything wrong. And so, I think a larger reckoning with the history of slavery is really what today’s movements with racial justice are calling for, and I think her story is evidence of why a larger reckoning is still needed and important.”

For McDaniel, the opportunity to share Wood’s story has been fulfilling.

“It’s been an extremely rewarding and humbling experience to see how many people have learned about Henrietta Wood through the book and how her story has resonated with contemporary debates about racial justice and reckoning with the history of slavery,” McDaniel said. “I find it gratifying to see the recognition the book has gotten, not so much because of the book, but it means people have recognized her story as an important part of American history.”

He also hopes Wood’s story can provide valuable lessons to those who hear it.

“Her story is one of tremendous resilience and determination to seek justice, so I think her name should be included within the long tradition of Black History month figures who we remember for their willingness to make what John Lewis calls, ‘good trouble.’” McDaniel said. “I think she’s an example of that and I hope that people who hear more about her story will be inspired to learn more.”

Detroit Mercy is celebrating Black History Month through several virtual events, including music and dance sessions that feature jazz music and West African drumming, the annual Love Stories from the Underground Railroad presentation and an ecumenical service. Learn more about these activities.

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