Caleb McDaniel on Slavery and Restitution

The 2020 Democratic presidential primary race made history as the first to consider reparations for slavery as a major topic of conversation. Nor were they alone. Thanks to the work of activists and intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie, Black peoples’ demand for reparations has garnered growing attention among politicians, business leaders, university officials, and journalists. Just last month, Forbes Magazine, not a publication associated with left-wing ideology, made the case for reparations in an article by Seth Cohen. In the piece, Cohen called on Americans to “finally settle the debts that it has long owed to Black Americans.” “The simple fact remains” Cohen concluded, “There cannot be a more perfect union without the payment of reparations. And the time to do so is now.”  

For those that argue that reparations are not possible or that too much time has passed, Caleb McDaniel has an important story to tell about a formerly enslaved woman named Henrietta Wood who sued for restitution in 1870 and won; paid $2,500, what is likely the largest sum ever awarded by a court in the United States in restitution for slavery. Wood’s story, which crosses multiple boundaries between lower and upper South, the antebellum and postbellum period, blurring the distinctions in the process, offers us valuable lessons about the history of slavery and freedom, and the lengths that different people went to in order to achieve both. More importantly, Henrietta Wood raises the question once again on people’s lips: what is owed to the formerly enslaved and their descendants? And demonstrates that such restitution is long overdue.

Check out the episode here!

W. Caleb McDaniel is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University. His first book, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery, won the Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians and the James Broussard prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. McDaniel’s most recent book, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History
and the 2020 Avery O. Craven Award from the Organization of American Historians.

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