Illustration: Geneva Bowers

Sold Back Into Slavery, She Sued for Restitution — and Won

Henrietta Wood’s brave fight predates the current debate over reparations

Morgan Jerkins
Published in
8 min readAug 26, 2019

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PPicture this: A free Black woman is being transported along in a carriage towards Covington, Kentucky in April of 1853. She had been working for a Ms. Rebecca Boyd in Cincinnati for three months. This Black woman is not certain of the purpose of the trip. Maybe it was so that Ms. Boyd could see about some money she was owed. Maybe not. The ride between Cincinnati and Covington was geographically and culturally significant. Between these two towns was the Ohio River, also known as “River Jordan,” the aqueous portal to freedom for enslaved Blacks. It was also the bridge between this free Black woman’s former life as an enslaved girl living on a Kentucky farm before being sold after her initial owner’s death. Ms. Boyd gets out of the vehicle and this Black woman sees money being exchanged in the darkness. Then, the Black woman is forced to walk with strange men while Boyd returns to the carriage and returns back to the river. Unbeknownst to her, she is being kidnapped and sold back into slavery.

But this is not how her story ends. Rather, it was just beginning, and the long-awaited recompense — in the form of money doled out from her captor — to this crime is what pulls her life directly into the current cultural conversations surrounding reparations and the 400th year commemorations to the translatlantic slave trade. “Pass over them checks,” is what she said with regards to her captor, Zebulon Ward, and that he did. The $2,500 this woman was awarded is the largest known sum of restitution for enslavement by a United States court. Her name is Henrietta Wood, and she is the subject of W. Caleb McDaniel, PhD’s exhilarating book, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.

HHenrietta Wood was born in either 1818 or 1820. Her actual birthdate is unknown, a common omission amongst other enslaved Black people. The first location Wood can be placed is at a Kentucky farm where she worked and belonged to the owner, Moses Tousey, until his death, when Wood was around 14 years old. Moses Tousey was a wealthy man, who along with other migrants of the late 1700s, arrived in Kentucky in order to carve ranches out of the wilderness and pass…

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Morgan Jerkins
ZORA
Writer for

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.