Money  /  Argument

There’s No Freedom Without Reparations

A movement to secure payments for descendants of enslaved people rages on.

Born into slavery, Henrietta Wood was legally freed in 1848 in Ohio when she was about 30. She only basked in that freedom for five years.

In 1853, a white sheriff empowered by the fugitive slave law abducted Wood and sold her back into bondage, taking her on a journey from Kentucky to Mississippi and finally to Texas, where she’d toil on a plantation through the Civil War. Though President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Wood did not regain her freedom until 1866, months after Union soldiers traveled to Texas on June 19, 1865 — Juneteenth — to enforce emancipation.

Wood — whose pathbreaking story was only recently surfaced — returned to Ohio and sued her abductor for $20,000 (worth more than $440,000 today). In the lawsuit, she claimed that because she had been abducted, sold back into slavery, and lost wages (about $500 per year), she was entitled to payment.

After eight years of meandering litigation, 12 white jurors in a federal courtroom in Cincinnati found Wood’s claim valid and assessed her damages at $2,500. The final decision was just a pittance compared with what Wood demanded, but 144 years later, it remains the largest known payment ordered by an American institution in restitution for slavery.

Wood’s story was widely covered at the time for its singularity, but fell out of the news as white Americans tried to distance themselves from slavery and its aftermath. Yet the questions that Wood’s victory raised then are the same ones hanging sullenly over America today.

“Who will recompense the millions of men and women for the years of liberty of which they have been defrauded?” an 1878 New York Times article about the court’s decision asked. “Who will make good to the thousands of kidnapped freemen the agony, distress, and bondage of a lifetime?”

What the writer recognized was the growing call for reparations that began at the close of the Civil War and continues to this day. When slavery ended, the federal government promised to provide “40 acres and a mule” — an idea proposed by Black leaders at the time — to nearly 4 million recently freed men and women. The effort would have redistributed land previously owned by the Confederates, giving the formerly enslaved a chance to own their own land and become economically self-sufficient — until the government, after Lincoln’s assassination, reneged.