Henrietta Wood: The Enslaved Woman Who Sued for (and Won) Reparations

Freedom Center Voices
October 7, 2022

Henrietta Wood: The Enslaved Woman Who Sued for (and Won) Reparations

“The suit was about more than Henrietta Wood alone. It was about what former slaves were owed for their enslavement, as well as about the real differences that restitution could make.”

In short, reparations mean making amends in the form of compensation to individuals who have been wronged. There are diverse types of reparations, but the most common use is in reference to right the wrong of the institution of slavery. There have been small victories in cases like Bruce’s Beach where the governor of California authorized the land to the descendants of a Black couple who were banished from Manhattan Beach in a racist attack in the early 20th century. However, in the long history of reparations, enslaved people have rarely won cases against their enslavers. But a Black woman became one the few enslaved people who successfully sued for and won reparations – Henrietta Wood.

Wood was born into slavery in Kentucky between 1818 and 1820 to the Moses Tousey family. As a youth, she was sold twice: to a merchant named Henry Forsyth in Louisville in 1834, where he treated Wood under extremely harsh conditions while causing physical, mental, and emotional abuse. To settle some debt, Forsyth sold Wood to a French immigrant named William Cirode sometime between 1835 and 1848 but moved to New Orleans with Wood as the housemaid after not feeling welcomed by other residents. After Cirode abandoned his family because of a number of failed business relationships, his wife Jane moved back to Louisville to generate income for the family by contracting Wood out for her domestic services. Mrs. Cirode moved Wood with her to Cincinnati as the city continued to expand. Mrs. Cirode went to an Ohio courthouse to declare Wood a free individual to avoid creditors trying to collect her husband’s debts. The court declared that Wood had been “manumitted by Jane M. Cirode of Ky. on the 15th of April, 1848. As a result, Wood experienced a feeling of freedom by saying, “My mistress gave me my freedom…and my papers were recorded.” She called the several years she worked as a domestic as a free woman a “sweet taste of liberty.” Wood decided to fulfill that right to be free by looking at other places of employment. She found work at a boardinghouse run by Rebecca Boyd, because but noticed that the working conditions were the same as working for Mrs. Cirode. But her feeling of liberty was short-lived.

Amendment to Reply, April 10, 1876
National Archives at Chicago

Thinking she was going on a leisurely trip to Kentucky with Boyd, she was kidnapped and re-enslaved by a man named Zebulon Ward. Her kidnapping garnered attention from the media and abolitionists alike. Both Boyd and the driver were tried in a criminal case in Cincinnati based on this kidnapping, but they were cleared of any wrongdoing. There was an original case between Wood and Ward in Kentucky where it was to be determined if Ward had the legal right to purchase Wood even though Mrs. Cirode emancipated her in Ohio. Unfortunately, the courts favored Ward and Wood remained in jail. The case moved to Kentucky’s Court of Appeals, which agreed with the lower court that Wood was not free; Wood remained under Ward’s ownership.

Ward sold Wood to a cotton planter named Gerard Brandon who wanted to take advantage of the cotton boom in the South between 1820 and 1860. Wood’s experience in Mississippi was hard due to working in very harsh conditions picking cotton and watching other enslaved individuals get severely punished. During her time in Mississippi, she also gave birth to a son, Arthur, who was born into slavery. When Wood’s enslaver found out the Confederate forces had lost control of the Mississippi, he decided to move West and set up residence in Texas with several hundred enslaved individuals including her. Many of the enslaved endured a litany of unpleasant circumstances: family separation, severe punishment if they failed to comply, and walking long distances under miserable weather. The turning point for Wood was the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and when Major General Gordon Granger came to Galveston to announce that the enslaved individuals there in Texas were freed in 1865. After illegally selling Wood, Ward entered into the penitentiary industry as a keeper in Frankfort, Kentucky. He was successful in the business, in part by taking monetary advantage of the prison system and treating the inmates badly during his tenure.

Verdict, April 17, 1878
National Archives at Chicago

After enduring the harsh conditions in Texas, Wood was able to make her way back to Ohio with little money after the end of the Civil War. Meanwhile, Ward took a job with a penitentiary in Tennessee, but quickly ended his time there and moved back to Kentucky. On a trip to a city outside of Cincinnati in 1870, a local sheriff found him and informed him that a lawsuit had been brought against him by Henrietta Wood. The charges were that she had been abducted, re-enslaved, and then sold to a plantation owner in Mississippi before being taken to Texas even though she was legally free. With the assistance of a Kentucky lawyer named Harvey Myers, she sued Ward for $20,000 in damages ($500 for every year she estimated her labor to have been worth while she was held in slavery) and lost wages because of her illegal enslavement. After many roadblocks and obstacles in the case, a local Cincinnati newspaper published Wood’s story in 1876, attracting attention from the public. Eight years since the filing of the lawsuit, a jury finally heard the case. Unlike her previous lawsuit, Wood’s chances in court had improved significantly since the end of the Civil War due to the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the14th Amendment, which granted national citizenship to former enslaved individuals. In 1878, Ms. Wood won her case and was awarded $2,500 – well below the original amount. Nevertheless, her victory was recorded as the largest US court-awarded type of reparations. The news of the case’s outcome spread throughout the country. Though the prosecution filed for a new trial because the payment was well below the amount Wood originally requested, the judge hearing the case deemed the claim immaterial and the $2,500 award stood. Ward followed through with the payment.

Though Wood’s case was the largest, it was not unique. A free person was able to win “freedom suits” granted they involved the following: Plaintiffs alleged that they had been legally freed in a southern state like Kentucky by an owner in a will or by some other act of manumission, only to be held in slavery by another party; and plaintiffs who claimed to be free outside of Kentucky, only to be brought to the state and re-enslaved. While they won their cases, they were rarely paid restitution due to a law allowing defendants to choose not to pay.

Following the trial, Wood settled in Chicago, where she worked as a laundress. Her son worked various jobs including as a Pullman Porter. Feeling that he should be doing something more fulfilling, he enrolled in law school and became an attorney. It was reported that Wood used the money from her lawsuit to help her son buy a house and fund his legal education. While the restitution was a big victory for Wood, her former enslaver Zebulon Ward told a different version of the story. He made dismissive comments like Wood being the “last negro he paid for” instead of telling the whole truth about the judgment.

Henrietta Wood died in Chicago in 1912 and has inspired crusades for reparations in the generations that followed. This story brings up the complex idea of reparations as it continues to be discussed in today’s conversations. This story also informs subjects like the harmful legacies of slavery and white supremacy in American history.


Jacqueline Hudson, Ph.D.

Exhibit Content Developer
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center