Henrietta Wood and her ground-breaking lawsuit


A simple question – “did she win?” – about an obscure historical figure took center stage Tuesday, Feb. 2, for the first Black History Month guest lecture this year.

This question was posed by the director of the Chicago branch of the National Archives regarding the lawsuit filed by a former slave against her kidnapper in the 19th century.

“On one level that question was easy for me to answer,” said Caleb McDaniel, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for history on his Zoom talk before an online forum of about 65 participants. “I already knew that Henrietta Wood had won her case.”

McDaniel had already read the court papers and interviews that proved as much.

But this simple three-word question went deeper than a verdict, and McDaniel challenged the audience to consider it while he outlined the difficult life of Wood for a little over 45 minutes.

As McDaniel and the audience would discover, that modest monetary judgment would greatly impact the lives of Wood, her son and future generations.

Born to slaves in 1820, Wood spent her early years shuffled between the families of two wealthy merchants after being separated from her family at the age of 14.

Wood’s fortune changed though when the wife of her last owner moved her to Cincinnati in the free state of Ohio.

“According to the laws at the time,” McDaniel said, “Henrietta Wood had to register at the county courthouse as a free woman.”

Woods was later interviewed having said that she remembered her first five years as her “sweet taste of liberty,” the title of McDaniel’s award-winning book.

However, freedom did not drastically change Wood’s lifestyle.

She was still only able to get work as a domestic and many times without wages.

Danger also still lurked just across the river from Ohio in her birth state of Kentucky.

Somehow, Woods was tricked, kidnapped and re-enslaved by Covington, KY, Sheriff Zebulon Ward in 1853.

Woods would spend the next 17 years living from Kentucky to Texas trying to regain her freedom.

After successfully finding her way back to Ohio in 1870, Wood retained a lawyer and filed a lawsuit against Ward for lost wages.

Woods won her lawsuit, and he was ordered to pay her $2,500.

“The largest known sum ever awarded by a U.S. court,” McDaniel said.

Remember the question posed earlier.

Did this landmark case benefit Woods or her family?

After winning her case, she moved to Chicago with her son, whom she had given birth to during that period of re-enslavement.

Her son, Arthur H. Simms, was able to buy a house and fund an education for himself.

Simms became a lawyer and practiced until his death in 1951.

Many of Woods’ descendants led successful lives.

In McDaniel’s opinion, Woods did win, because the restitution positively impacted her life and the lives of her descendants.