This image is the front cover of “Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement 1830-1870” written by Kathryn Kish Sklar in 2000
The story of abolition is often marked by incredible figures, such as Frederick Douglass, Henry “Box” Brown, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, and William Lloyd Garrison, who led and organized much of the anti-slavery movement in the early 1800s. Their efforts were hailed to have caused a turn in the momentum of America’s politics and opinions about slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War in the 1860s. What is often forgotten are the women who began their efforts earlier, risked their lives for their freedom and for the liberation of others, and who were increasingly sidelined before and after the movement took place.
Over the following weeks, we will present just a few of the stories of the women who have been ignored throughout the history of the equal rights movement, which includes antislavery, suffragist, and civil rights movements during the mid- to late- 19th century. We have consolidated written accounts from numerous sources, all of which will be cited at the bottom of this post. This is simply a consolidation of the many many histories that were buried, and need to resurface now more than ever.
In 1878, a group of 12 jurors awarded victory to Henrietta Wood, who sued for reparations over slavery over 8 years beforehand. She would be awarded $2,500 (a sum of around $65,000 today), which still stands today as the largest amount awarded by the U.S. in restitution for slavery.
Henrietta Wood was born into slavery sometime between 1818 and 1820, but was taken from her family in 1834 and sold to the Cirode family in New Orleans. She then moved north with the wife of the family and in 1848, she was registered as free in Ohio and began to find work on her own around Cincinnati.
Still residing in Kentucky, the rest of the Cirode family saw Wood as part of their inheritance. They looked to the booming interstate slave trade, fueled by “fugitive slave catchers,” who operated under the cover of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. This law required the return of runaway slaves. In 1853, they hired Zebulon Ward, the local deputy sheriff, a gang of “slave catchers,” and the current employer of Henrietta Wood to capture her and transport her across state lines. Wood was kidnapped, and while she did pursue litigation for two years to prove her freedom status, she was sold to the Gerard Brandon cotton plantation near Natchez, Mississippi. Brandon owned somewhere between 700-800 slaves and subjected them to extremely violent cruelty. Sometime during her time at the Brandon plantation, Henrietta gave birth to her son, Arthur Wood.
Just days before Union troops would arrive to liberate Natchez, Mississippi, Brandon forced hundreds of slaves to march 400 miles to Texas, where they would continue to work another cotton plantation. Henrietta Wood was one of those slaves and she continued to work on a plantation until 1867, when she was finally granted her freedom. She made her way back up to Kentucky to find her family members, and she met Harvey Meyers, a lawyer who helped her pursue a lawsuit against Zebulon Ward, now a wealthy resident of Lexington, Kentucky. The constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and granted ex-slaves citizenship status also allowed for the lawsuit to go to federal court.
The suit was filed in 1870, but Meyers was murdered in 1874 and Henrietta Wood did not win her case until 1878. Ward did not pay her reparations until 1879, meaning she had worked for 16 years without pay in incredibly brutal conditions.
Wood’s reparations of $2,500, although it may seem small, were not insignificant to her son, Arthur. With help from his mother’s compensation, Arthur was able to buy a house, start a family, pay for his own schooling, and became one of the first African-American graduates of Northwestern University’s School of Law. After a long career as a lawyer, Arthur Wood (later – Simms) left a long line of descendants who were able to lead successful professional careers, even as redlining and other discriminatory policies and practices placed a chokehold on the South Side neighborhoods of Chicago where many of them lived.
Much of the information in this section was taken from the article on Henrietta Wood by the Smithsonian Magazine. In that article you can find an interactive map detailing Wood’s harrowing journey from slavery to liberation and back again.