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Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

Print Price: $23.50

352 pp.
28 b/w images, 2 maps, 5.5" x 8.25"


Publication date:
March 2021

Imprint: OUP US

Sweet Taste of Liberty

A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America

W. Caleb McDaniel

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History

The unforgettable saga of one enslaved woman's fight for justice--and reparations

Born into slavery, Henrietta Wood was taken to Cincinnati and legally freed in 1848. In 1853, a Kentucky deputy sheriff named Zebulon Ward colluded with Wood's employer, abducted her, and sold her back into bondage. She remained enslaved throughout the Civil War, giving birth to a son in Mississippi and never forgetting who had put her in this position.

By 1869, Wood had obtained her freedom for a second time and returned to Cincinnati, where she sued Ward for damages in 1870. Astonishingly, after eight years of litigation, Wood won her case: in 1878, a Federal jury awarded her $2,500. The decision stuck on appeal. More important than the amount, though the largest ever awarded by an American court in restitution for slavery, was the fact that any money was awarded at all. By the time the case was decided, Ward had become a wealthy businessman and a pioneer of convict leasing in the South. Wood's son later became a prominent Chicago lawyer, and she went on to live until 1912.

McDaniel's book is an epic tale of a black woman who survived slavery twice and who achieved more than merely a moral victory over one of her oppressors. Above all, Sweet Taste of Liberty is a portrait of an extraordinary individual as well as a searing reminder of the lessons of her story, which establish beyond question the connections between slavery and the prison system that rose in its place.

Readership : History readers of African American history, Civil War and Restoration history, and Southern history.


  • "The reader not only follows the fascinating narrative of a woman who lost her freedom, but also learns of the intricacies of slavery in a border state like Kentucky, the pain of separation from loved ones, and the ordeals of being sold 'down the river,' surviving on a large cotton plantation, and being an enslaved refugee in Texas during the Civil War... It is an enlightening account from the point of view of an enslaved woman about the arduous trip DL and the subsequent years DL that many enslaved people were forced to endure by their masters to avoid their being liberated by Union armies... [McDaniel] has turned these into a captivating account of this period, revealing how the legal and economic aspects of the institution of slavery interacted in very personal and human ways with those who were kept enslaved."

    --Angela Boswell, Professor of History at Henderson State University, Southwestern Historical Quarterly

  • "As a whole, Sweet Taste of Liberty is the fruit of excellent scholarship and a timely and significant addition to the field of U.S. racial history."

    --Ken Chujo, J.F. Oberlin University, Tokyo, The Journal of Southern History

  • "In this gripping study, Rice University historian McDaniel recounts the painful but triumphant story of one enslaved woman's long fight for justice... McDaniel tells this story engrossingly and accessibly. This is a valuable contribution to Reconstruction history with clear relevance to current debates about reparations for slavery."

    --Publishers Weekly

  • "Sweet Taste of Liberty is a masterpiece. Using an extraordinary archival discovery, McDaniel expertly weaves a compelling, fine-grained narrative of the extraordinary life of Henrietta Wood. . . . But this is not simply a biography. It also a work of profound analysis, layered with McDaniel's deep knowledge of slavery, emancipation, and the law. The book raises the most profound questions about slavery, reparations, and the debt that the United States owes to the people whose unfree labor constructed a great deal of that nation."

    --Gregory P. Downs, author of The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic

  • "As America grapples with reparations for slavery, Caleb McDaniel unearths the astounding story of a woman who survived bondage, twice, and fought for restitution against impossible odds. In lucid and vivid prose, he brings us a chilling, inspiring, and timely examination of both the necessity and complexity of redressing historical crimes."

    --Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic and Spying on the South

  • "Henrietta Wood's quest to be made whole by seeking reparations from the man who kidnapped and re-enslaved her is a heart-tugging page-turner. With fidelity to the historical record and insight into the emotions that run through it, Caleb McDaniel's Sweet Taste of Liberty tells how enslaved women lived along the jagged lines that divided house and field, city and countryside, North and South, and slavery and freedom. Her triumph is a tribute to one woman's persistence, courage, legal savvy, and an enduring devotion to family-its lessons for us are timeless."

    --Martha S. Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Johns Hopkins University, author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America

  • "McDaniel renders an enthralling biography of a determined, resilient woman... A well-researched, well-told story that also contributes to the debate about reparations."

    --Library Journal

  • "Sweet Taste of Liberty is a profound book that could not have been released at a better time... It is an account brimming with as much bittersweetness as it does hope."


  • "[A] superbly written chronicle . . . . rich with vivid personalities and unexpected turns."

    --Wall Street Journal

  • "Through painstaking archival research, Bell and McDaniel have reconstructed their lives with such vivid detail, sensitivity, and riveting storytelling that you would think each of their figures left us whole autobiographies. For the simple act of recovering their stories, both books would be commendable. But what makes them essential reading is the larger questions they demand of us as readers: What exactly was the condition under which un-enslaved black people lived before emancipation--and what is it that they and their descendants are owed?"

    --The New Republic

  • "W. Caleb McDaniel tells a breathless tale with an ominously dark feel through many of its pages, because the monsters here were real. Yes, it's a complicated tale that races from north to south, but the righteous audacity that ultimately occurred in Ohio in 1870 makes it worthwhile, fist-pumping, and satisfying. Historians, of course, will want Sweet Taste of Liberty. Feminists shouldn't miss it. Folks with an opinion on reparations should find it. All of you will want to take it home."

    --Miami Times

  • "A deeply rich story... This beautifully written book is a must read."

    --Civil War Monitor

  • "Sweet Taste of Liberty uses the past to show how the open wounds of slavery still exist."

    --The Advocate

  • "Researchers, leisurely readers and those in the general public looking to be more informed about the history of slavery and reparations in this country, would be hard-pressed not to find this book compelling. It is a story that deserves to be heard and a conversation that needs to be had."

    --Bowling Green Daily News

  • "A book that single-handedly proves that new American heroes can be found in the obscured corners of this country's history."

    --Bowery Boys, American History Book of the Year 2020

Part I - The Worst Slave of Them All
1. The Crossing
2. Touseytown
3. Down River
4. Ward's Return
5. Cincinnati
6. The Plan
7. The Flight
Part II - Forks of the Road
8. Raising a Muss
9. Wood versus Ward
10. The Keeper
11. Natchez
12. Brandon Hall
13. Versailles
14. Revolution
15. The March
Part III - The Return of Henrietta Wood
16. Arthur
17. Robertson County
18. Dawn and Doom
19. Nashville
20. A Rather Interesting Case
21. Story of a Slave
22. The Verdict
Appendix: An Essay on Sources

There are no Instructor/Student Resources available at this time.

W. Caleb McDaniel is Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Humanities and Professor and Chair of the History Department at Rice University. His website is wcaleb.org and he can be found on Twitter at @wcaleb.

Special Features

  • The epic, unique, and haunting story of an enslaved woman and her quest for justice.
  • Incorporates recent scholarship on slavery, reparations, and the ongoing connection between slavery and incarceration of black Americans.
  • McDaniel received a Public Scholar fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities that enabled him to write this book.