Rice’s McDaniel receives NEH grant to support book project on woman who sued former enslaver

Caleb McDaniel, an associate professor of history in Rice’s School of Humanities, is one of 30 grant recipients nationwide this year in the National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH) program to support well-researched books in the humanities aimed at a broad public audience.

CALEB MCDANIEL

CALEB MCDANIEL

He received a Public Scholar Program grant to support the writing of his new book on Henrietta Wood, an enslaved woman who sued one of her former owners in the twilight of Reconstruction and won. The grants were announced Aug. 9.

Titled “A Case of Reparations: The Odyssey of Henrietta Wood in Slavery and Freedom,” the book highlights “the story of a courageous victory won by a black woman amidst a larger story of defeat for the formerly enslaved and their descendants,” McDaniel said. It will be submitted to a press by the end of 2017.

“A multigenerational saga, it (the book) shows the promise and the limits of case-by-case reparations in a context of institutionalized racism that outlived Wood and continued to constrain her upwardly mobile son,” said McDaniel, who is a historian of slavery, abolitionism, trans-Atlantic reform and the 19th-century United States.

Born enslaved in Kentucky in 1818, taken to New Orleans in 1837 then released from slavery in Cincinnati in 1848, Wood was kidnapped and sold back into slavery in 1853, according to McDaniel. After an attempt by local abolitionists to prove her freedom failed in court, Wood was sold again in 1855 to a Mississippi cotton planter, who then took her to Texas in 1863 to prevent her emancipation by federal troops during the Civil War. Wood remained effectively enslaved in Texas until 1867. She returned to Ohio in 1869 and filed a $20,000 suit against her kidnapper, a white man named Zebulon Ward who leased the penitentiaries of three Southern states and had become an early architect of convict leasing in the South. A decade later, in the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction, a jury awarded Wood the smaller but still substantial sum of $2,500 in damages and lost wages.

“But even apart from its contribution to ongoing debates about reparations, this dramatic story will also provide general readers with an accessible introduction to the most recent historical scholarship on slavery, the interstate slave trade, the antebellum abolitionist struggle, the process of emancipation during the Civil War, the war’s aftermath and the ‘Great Migration’ of black Southerners to northern cities like Chicago,” McDaniel said. “Despite all that scholars in these fields now know, general readers and scholars alike still need richly contextualized narratives that foreground the lived experience of individual enslaved people. The story of Henrietta Wood, a twice-enslaved, twice-emancipated woman who refused to forget what she had suffered, meets that demand.”

McDaniel’s first book, “The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery,” won the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians and the James Broussard Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.

McDaniel is running an “open research notebook” experiment while writing the book, keeping his notes online so that people can follow his research as it develops. The notebook can be viewed at http://wiki.wcaleb.rice.edu.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.