It was 1848, 15 years before President Abraham Lincoln would issue his Emancipation Proclamation, and former slave Henrietta Wood finally had her freedom papers.
But what Wood would later term her first “sweet taste of liberty” living as a free woman in Cincinnati only lasted until 1853, when a corrupt Kentucky deputy sheriff crossed the Ohio River, kidnapped Wood, and sold her back into slavery. The abduction set into motion a series of events that culminated in Wood suing the sheriff, by then a wealthy businessman, and being awarded a stunning $2,500 in damages in 1878. It was the largest known sum ever awarded in an American court in restitution for slavery.
Wood’s experience is the subject of Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America, which earned author Caleb McDaniel ’06 PhD the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for History.
McDaniel’s work is “a masterfully researched meditation on reparations based on the remarkable story of a 19th-century woman,” according to the judges.
McDaniel, Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of the Humanities and chair of the history department at Rice University, was doing household repairs at his home in Houston when a friend called to tell him of the honor. “I was stunned. I was not expecting it all,” he says.
“I’m also humbled and really gratified that the story of Henrietta Wood would get such major recognition,” he says. “The Pulitzer prizes recognize books about significant aspects of American history. This is a really meaningful way for homage to be paid to her.”
McDaniel learned about Wood from an 1879 newspaper interview a colleague sent him in the fall of 2014. He saw the story of a Black woman’s successful lawsuit against the man who had enslaved her become more relevant after the racial upheaval following incidents such as Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore and the fatal shooting of nine in a Charleston church.
McDaniel’s research for the book required research in archives located in nine states, including Ohio, Kentucky, and Texas, as well as Mississippi, where Wood’s son was born, and Illinois, where her son became a prominent Chicago lawyer.
He was able to harvest significant information from documents and other sources thanks to “the kinds of skills that the Hopkins history department had equipped me with,” he says.
“Johns Hopkins was a wonderfully supportive place for me to complete my graduate education,” says McDaniel, noting how welcome he and other graduate students were at weekly seminars hosted by the faculty.
Having earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Texas A&M, McDaniel says his first foray out of Texas with his spouse Brandy ’04 MA (SOE) required some adjustments. “We know about humidity, growing up in Texas. But we had this romantic idea of snow. We learned quickly there is a lot of hard work shoveling and de-icing,” says McDaniel, whose household was without power for 48 hours after a freak winter storm paralyzed Houston and most of Texas last February.
McDaniel’s first book, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrison Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform, was published in 2013. Based on his dissertation at Hopkins, it focused on William Lloyd Garrison, who founded and published a prominent anti-slavery newspaper in Boston in 1831. The book earned McDaniel the James H. Broussard First Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians.
McDaniel established a Twitter account, @Every3Minutes, in 2014 that tweets a reminder every three minutes to underscore the fact that 2,000,000 slaves were sold in the United States between 1820 and 1860.
He explains that his interest in slavery is a natural result of being an historian of 19th-century United States and the outlawed institution’s impact on the period.
“[History] is an exciting discipline, not one just about recording dates and names,” he says.