It was April 17, 1878. A jury of 12 white men entered a federal courtroom in Ohio to make known the verdict in a slavery lawsuit. Henrietta Wood, a former slave, had sued Zebulon Ward, a white man who had kidnapped and enslaved her some 25 years ago. She was suing him for $20,000 in reparations.
Her son, Arthur, was in the courtroom. Wood had two days earlier told the court that she was born enslaved in Kentucky and was freed in Cincinnati in 1848. However, five years later, Ward kidnapped her and sold her. She was subsequently enslaved on a Texas plantation until after the Civil War when she came back to Cincinnati freed from slavery in 1869. In 1870, she sued Ward.
But the case dragged on and the trial began after eight years. The 12 jurors on April 17, 1878, finally delivered a verdict that many were shocked to hear: “We, the Jury in the above entitled cause, do find for the plaintiff and assess her damages in the premises at Two thousand five hundred dollars.”
Even though that wasn’t the figure Wood wanted, the amount remains the largest known sum ever granted by a U.S. court in restitution for slavery. Wood gave interviews to two reporters in the 1870s about her harrowing story.
She was living in Cincinnati as a former slave in 1853 when the woman she worked for proposed a carriage ride across the river to Covington, Kentucky. Wood was kidnapped there and forced into slavery once more. Apparently, Ward, who was also a deputy sheriff, had made plans with Wood’s employer to kidnap and sell her. Wood was sold to slaveholder Gerard Brandon and sent to Natchez, Mississippi, to work for him in his cotton fields.
The Emancipation Proclamation came into effect 10 years later in January 1863. But it did not free all slaves as the Union was still fighting the Civil War. Wood’s slaveowner Brandon led her and her son, Arthur, and some 300 slaves to Robertson County, Texas, to wait out the war and see if slavery could survive, historian W. Caleb McDaniel told USA Today.
Slavery continued there for two more years before troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and forced slave owners to free their slaves. But many slaves found it difficult to go back to their homes as they had no support. Others also feared being kidnapped on their way back home and taken to places like Cuba where slavery was still legal.
Wood signed a contract to work for Brandon for three more years for $10 a month in Texas and in Mississippi. But Brandon never paid her until she was able to get back to Cincinnati with her son in 1869. She then started working for an attorney, Harvey Myers, who helped her file a lawsuit against Ward for reparations.
“Henrietta did not forget who had wronged her,” reporter Lafcadio Hearn wrote after speaking with Wood in the 1870s, “and some three years ago  she entered suit at Lexington against her kidnappers.”
Wood passed away in 1912 and her story was largely forgotten until recently. Historian McDaniel highlighted it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Sweet Taste of Liberty, A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.”
“In her case we don’t have a picture or a photograph, but my hope is that when someone reads the book, you have a chance to empathize with someone like her as more than just an abstraction,” McDaniel said.
Wood’s son, Arthur, grew up to become a successful attorney in Chicago.