In 1870, a Black woman sued her enslaver for reparations and won

A man holds a sign that reads, "World leaders! Reparations for slavery now!"
A man holds a sign as the Reparations Task Force meets to hear public input on reparations at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.Carolyn Cole/Getty Images
  • A Black woman once sued her enslaver and won in front of an all-white jury.

  • Her story is one of the few victories in the history of reparations in America.

  • There has been more vocal support for reparations in recent years, but little action.

Henrietta Wood was born into slavery to the Tousey family in Kentucky between 1818 and 1820. About a decade later, she was sold for $700 to a merchant, Henry Forsyth, in Louisville. According to some reports, the Louisville merchant physically and mentally abused her.

For debt reasons, Wood was sold again as a teenager to a French immigrant, William Cirode, between 1835 and 1848 in New Orleans, where she worked as a housemaid. When Cirode abandoned his family due to legal issues, his wife, Jane, moved back to Cincinnati, where she rented out Wood as a domestic servant.

Short-lived freedom

Fearing debt collectors, Jane Cirode declared Wood free at an Ohio courthouse in 1848. This legally meant Wood could work as a free Black woman. She remembered that period of her life as a "sweet taste of liberty."

But freedom was short-lived. Five years later, Zebulon Ward, a Kentuckian deputy sheriff who Cirode's daughter and son-in-law, Josephine and Robert White, hired to capture Wood in Kentucky, kidnapped her. Wood was once again enslaved "illegally" for 16 years through the Civil War.

A historic win

Following Wood's return to Cincinnati in 1870, she sued Ward for $20,000 in damages and lost wages, estimating that her cost of labor was worth $500 for every year she was enslaved.

Though she faced many hurdles, Wood ultimately won her case eight years after filing the lawsuit. In 1878, an all-white jury voted in Wood's favor, a historic victory in the history of reparations.

But Ward was ordered to pay only $2,500 — a fraction of the original amount Wood requested, yet still the largest sum a US court had ever awarded for reparations. What was $2,500 in 1878 would be worth over $75,000 today.

Hope for a better future

Wood died in Chicago in 1912. Her story is one of the few victories in the history of reparations in America.

In an April 1878 article about Wood's lawsuit, The New York Times suggested that more formerly enslaved Americans may ask for reparations. "The United States Government may be asked to make good the loss of those whose property was suddenly clothed with the right of manhood," The Times wrote. "But who will recompense the millions of men and women for the years of liberty of which they have been defrauded? Who will make good to the thousands of kidnapped freemen the agony, distress, and bondage of a lifetime?"

Wood used the money from the lawsuit to move to Chicago with her son. The money helped him buy a home and attend college. In 1889, Wood's son became one of the first Black men to graduate from what would later become Northwestern University's School of Law.

In his book, "Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution," W. Caleb McDaniel, a professor at Rice University, wrote that Wood's case stood as proof of the lasting impact reparations could have: "It was about what former slaves were owed … as well about the real differences restitution could make."

Danielle Blackman, a descendant of Wood, told the Seattle Times that Wood's story inspired her to pursue college and, in the face of racial discrimination, to always "find a way or invent a way to make it work, even if we had to wait it out."

The fight for reparations

In 2008 and 2009, the Senate and the House of Representatives issued unprecedented apologies for slavery and Jim Crow laws but did not pass any joint bill for reparations.

"Whereas it is important for this country, which legally recognized slavery through its Constitution and its laws, to make a formal apology for slavery and for its successor, Jim Crow, so that it can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all of its citizens," Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee wrote in the resolution.

While there has been more vocal support for reparations in recent years, and individual states have instituted their own reparations committees, federal efforts have stalled.

Last May, Democratic Rep. Cori Bush proposed Reparations Now, legislation that would push the federal government to provide reparations to the descendants of enslaved people.

"Black people in our country cannot wait any longer for our government to begin addressing each and every one of the extraordinary bits of harm it has caused since its founding, that it continues to perpetuate each and every day all across our communities all across this country," Bush said during a press conference.

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