Not long after his mother died on an October day in 2003, David Blackman journeyed with his teenage daughter from Pensacola, Fla., to the narrow, two-story brick house in Southside Chicago where he had lived as a boy.
Mary Blackman’s home had once throbbed with life — the notes as she played the piano ringing through the rooms, the smell of biscuits and fudge filling the air and, not infrequently, the stern thunder of Mary’s voice as she kept her six children in line.
Now the house was eerily quiet, jammed with furniture, stacks of papers and puzzles, dusty knickknacks. As David sifted through items on an old wooden sideboard in Mary’s dining room, a sheaf of papers caught his eye. He picked them up and scanned them: They were photocopies of a one-page contract written in a very old-fashioned, angular black script. David had difficulty making out what it said, let alone its import, but two words stood out: “Henrietta Wood.”
The name appeared in the first line and again at the bottom of the page, accompanied underneath by a large slanted “X.” Above the name and signature of the illiterate Wood, David could make out part of another signature, “Brandon,” and then a date: 7 January 1866.
Before returning to Florida, he and Danielle packed up the document as well as Mary’s old family photographs.
He and Danielle tried for months to decipher the handwriting in the contract, but even as they were able to come up with a rough transcription, its existence mystified them. Who was this Wood, whose name had no echoes in their family, and why did Mary Blackman care?
Yet life soon washed over them. David had retired after a long career in the Air Force and a stint as a postal worker to care for Danielle alone when his second wife died of cancer. Then, in college, Danielle was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder. Father and daughter became consumed by her illness and the legal fight to secure disability benefits for her. Family history would need to wait.
Years would pass before David would learn about the indomitable woman who would turn out to be his great-great-grandmother. After the Civil War, Henrietta Wood sued for reparations for her enslavement, becoming the recipient of the largest sum known to have been awarded by the U.S. courts as restitution for slavery.
Her case has fresh resonance in 2021, as Congress debates forming a commission to examine the nation’s support for slavery, and the brutal racial oppression that followed, and propose reparations for its enduring consequences.
In 1870, Wood’s reparations lawsuit was “about more than Wood alone,” wrote Rice University professor W. Caleb McDaniel in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the case, “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution.” “It was about what former slaves were owed … as well about the real differences restitution could make.”
Wood’s audacious quest for justice and the resulting victory, her great-great-grandson would later conclude, had left a lasting mark on her descendants — no matter that they did not know it.
‘I thought I should die’
Wood was born into slavery in the early 19th century on a Kentucky farm owned by a man named Moses Tousey, McDaniel writes. After Tousey died, the teenage Wood was purchased in 1834 for $700 by Henry Forsyth, a Louisville merchant whom she would later describe to a reporter as “a pretty mean man” who beat her frequently. She cooked, scrubbed and did the laundry.
A few years later, Wood was sold to another Louisville merchant, William Cirode, again as a domestic servant. Cirode moved with his family to New Orleans, but plagued by debts and legal troubles, Cirode fled back to his native France around 1844, leaving Wood and his other enslaved people with his wife. Jane Cirode relocated to Cincinnati while renting Wood out as domestic labor in Louisville.
Possibly to evade her husband’s creditors, Cirode eventually brought Wood to Cincinnati and legally freed her in 1848. Wood was able to earn wages as a maid, an experience she would later refer to as “a sweet taste of liberty.”
It didn’t last.
Jane Cirode’s daughter and son-in-law, Josephine and Robert White, had been disgruntled by her decision to free what they viewed as their human inheritance. In 1853, after Jane had died, they schemed with Wood’s then-employer to coax Wood into accompanying her on a carriage ride to nearby Covington, Ky.
When they arrived on the other side of the river, three men, among them a deputy sheriff in Covington named Zebulon Ward, ordered Wood to get out of the carriage.
“Now don’t run or I’ll shoot you,” Wood recalled one of the men saying.
“I’ve got nothing to run for,” said Wood, at which point one of the men commented, “She talks mighty big, don’t she?”
Wood — a large woman who was close to six feet tall and as “strong as most men,” according to her self-description — had been more vulnerable than perhaps she realized.
[They were once America’s cruelest, richest slave traders. Why does no one know their names?]
Although Ohio had outlawed slavery in 1802, it was a perilous place to be a free Black person. Even after the birth of the abolitionist movement, many White southern Ohioans in particular sympathized with enslavers and were eager to maintain peace with neighboring Kentucky. Black people were kidnapped back into slavery with little outcry, and the situation only worsened after 1850 with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.
As Wood awaited her fate in a fourth-story bedroom in a Boone County, Ky., inn, a young White man, perhaps the innkeeper’s son, entered the room and began to question Wood, and she decided to share her story. The kidnappers soon moved Wood to a slave pen in Lexington, where she languished for a year.
“The sun never shined on me all that time — never once,” Wood later told a reporter.
Eventually, the man at the inn helped her press her case in court that she had been abducted. Wood was not allowed to testify on her own behalf, and Ward maintained that she was still enslaved when he purchased her. Her freedom papers had been lost in a Cincinnati courthouse fire in 1849. The case was eventually dismissed, and Wood became the legal property of a White man once again.
Ward took her to Natchez, Miss., and put her up for sale at a notorious slave market known as Forks of the Road. There, Gerard Brandon, a rich plantation owner, bought Wood and put her to work in the cotton fields.
“I sowed the cotton, hoed the cotton and picked the cotton,” she said. “I worked under the meanest overseers, and got flogged and flogged until I thought I should die.”
During that time, Wood gave birth to her son, Arthur.
After Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Brandon force-marched Wood and hundreds of other people he enslaved 400 miles to Texas, just days before the Union Army arrived at Natchez to free thousands of enslaved people.
Wood remained enslaved even after “Juneteenth,” — June 19, 1865 — when Union soldiers arrived in Texas to enforce emancipation. She did not gain her freedom until 1866, when she signed a contract with Brandon to become the family’s domestic servant back in Mississippi. She later told a reporter that she was never paid the $10 a month she was owed.
Wood eventually returned to Cincinnati with the son she had managed to keep by her side. Once again, she shared her story, this time as part of a lawsuit filed in federal court in 1870.
In her unprecedented legal claim, Wood demanded that the kidnappers’ ringleader, Ward, the deputy sheriff who by then had become wealthy through convict leasing, pay her $20,000 in reparations.
Wood’s case suffered a setback when her lawyer was killed in 1874, but in 1878 a jury decreed that Ward owed her $2,500 — roughly $65,000 in today’s dollars — for lost wages and freedom. It was a fraction of what she had sought but still offered her a measure of financial stability in 1879, the year Ward paid up.
Wood’s suit received ample media attention at the time. Echoing Ward’s lawyer, critics asserted even then that the claim was too far removed from slavery. Wood’s sympathizers were appalled that she had received so little for her suffering.
Yet by the time Wood died in 1912, the case was lost to history, gathering dust in an archive somewhere, until almost 150 years later when McDaniel stumbled upon it.
‘Take a look at this’
In 2014, McDaniel was researching a book about enslaved people who had been forcibly taken to Texas during the Civil War. He mentioned to a colleague at a conference how challenging it was to find stories of individual “refugeed” slaves. A few days later, the colleague wrote to McDaniel.
“You should take a look at this,” he said. He attached a copy of an 1879 story in the Ripley Bee based on interviews between Wood and an unnamed writer.
McDaniel soon discovered an even earlier article about Wood in the Cincinnati Commercial. It was written by Lafcadio Hearn, a scrappy young reporter of Greek-Irish descent with a blind left eye and an ear for the offbeat. (Later he would move to Japan as a correspondent and become a celebrated writer as a Japanese citizen with a new name, Koizumi Yakumo.)
Wood had been embroiled in litigation with Ward for six years with no end in sight when in 1876 Hearn encountered her, by then apparently in her late 50s, living in a “quaint little frame building” near the Ohio River.
Hearn, a White man who had at one point been married to a former enslaved woman, listened as Wood shared her story of slavery and freedom, slavery and freedom.
In the fall of 2015, after a despairing search by McDaniel, the director of the National Archives branch in Chicago finally turned up a weathered file bearing Wood’s Ohio federal court case number, 1431.
“I knew this was the story that needed my attention,” McDaniel, now 41, said, given the debate that had begun roiling the country about whether to pay reparations to the descendants of the enslaved.
He found a 1948 article in the Chicago Tribune about Wood’s son, Arthur Simms, who had had a long career as a lawyer in the city before dying in 1951 at age 95.
McDaniel began to look for Wood’s descendants, running into a wall of obituaries before he came upon Winona Adkins, Simms’s great-granddaughter and a computer systems administrator in Oakland, Calif.
When the professor finally reached Adkins in early 2016, the two corresponded by email for months before McDaniel flew out to Oakland to pore over old family photographs with Adkins, then in her early 70s, and her husband, Bill Spight.
[At 88, he is a historical rarity — the living son of a slave]
Adkins shared with McDaniel memories of living with her great-grandfather in his tall, rectangular brick house on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Simms had been a formal, rather taciturn man who dressed in a three-piece suit long after retiring and preached discipline, she said. He also took no guff, even at one point, according to family lore, allowing one of his grandsons to fester in jail to teach him a lesson instead of bailing him out.
Yet Adkins had no idea Simms had been born into slavery. Perhaps he was ashamed or the memories were too traumatic; perhaps he had been too bent on making a livelihood.
McDaniel was awestruck by their conversation. “Winona was maybe 6 or 7 when Arthur Simms died, just one generation removed,” he said. “It’s an indication of how close in time this history is to all of us.”
A legacy discovered
In 2018, David Blackman was still living with his daughter Danielle in Pensacola. Danielle had won her disability case, and now he had the time to explore his family’s history.
He called his first cousin Winona Adkins, whose mother had been a librarian, figuring she would have family photographs to share. Spight answered the phone and told David that his wife had died earlier that year of pancreatic cancer. Then he told David something else: Adkins had been in touch with a historian who was writing a book about Henrietta Wood. David instantly thought of the name on the 1866 contract and emailed a photo of it to McDaniel.
McDaniel had not seen the contract before and rushed to incorporate it into his book. For his part, David’s mind reeled as he learned Wood’s life story.
Suddenly, the little that David knew about his family’s history began to make deeper sense.
“Whether we realize it or not, every little decision our ancestors made charted a path for us as their descendants,” said Nick Sheedy, lead genealogist on the PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” “And the decisions we make today affect the people who come after us. History isn’t some static set of facts. … We are connected to history today.”
The great-grandfather David had known simply as a lawyer was one of the first African Americans to graduate from what is now Northwestern University’s law school, in 1889. David can’t think of anyone in the family who hasn’t gone to college. The family is full of professionals, in medicine, law, social work, information technology, school administration.
After Simms bought the house on South Wabash Avenue, he purchased two more. Where did the money for his tuition and home down payment come from? McDaniel surmised the seed money for Simms’s prosperity came from the restitution Henrietta Wood had won in court.
Then there was the violin that Simms had bought for his son, Arthur Jr., and the music lessons that came with it, symbols of the elder Arthur’s ascent into the middle class. Arthur Jr.'s children and their children, too, would all take up instruments, with one of David’s uncles, William Adkins, making his career as a jazz saxophonist who toured and recorded with Count Basie. David plays the guitar; Winona loved the piano.
Wood’s descendants shared a sense of thrift, self-discipline and the belief that hard work eventually would bring reward. These qualities had been embodied in David’s mother, Mary Blackman, the daughter of Simms’s daughter, Neata.
Mary, who worked for the Chicago Housing Authority, was an accomplished pianist and violinist who sang in the choir at church. On Sunday mornings, she would make delectably flaky biscuits, and David’s friends would come to services with the family just to get a taste. David remembers Mary’s close attention to her children as a single mother, especially when they misbehaved. Like Simms Sr., she took no guff.
“You didn’t mess with her if you wanted to keep your scalp,” said David, now a bespectacled 69-year-old with a full gray beard.
Mary’s children were expected to work, and as a teen, David got a job at the public library. “We were a ‘be all you can be’ family,” he said.
The job kept him out of trouble as the character of the Southside neighborhood where Mary had bought a house in the late 1950s began to change. Even as he plotted his comings and goings to avoid rival gangs, David said his life at home with Mary and his siblings remained a rock.
“We were doing better than everyone around us,” David said. “When I look back now, I think that was part of the legacy. If Henrietta Wood hadn’t sued for what they did to her,” if she hadn’t been the kind of person to sue, he said, “things probably would have turned out very differently.”
After Mary’s children were grown, she earned her undergraduate degree and then a master’s degree from Chicago State University. On graduation day in 1981, Mary posed for a photograph in her cap and gown with David, who had just earned his undergraduate degree that day after serving in the Vietnam War. Mary’s sister, Thyrza, also received her diploma on the same day.
Danielle Blackman grew up looking at that photograph in their Pensacola home. “There wasn’t a point in my life where I thought about not going to college,” Danielle, 34, said. “When you see a picture like that, there’s just no excuse, is there?”
Like her father, Danielle devoured McDaniel’s book. She was struck by Wood’s moxie in pursuing her claim, unbroken and unbowed. She imagines her great-great-grandfather’s legal career may have been inspired by the lawsuit his mother won just as he entered manhood.
The family’s financial acumen, which emphasized taking care of essentials and savings before buying luxuries, flew in the face of the “disposable essence” of American culture, she said. Her grandmother Mary was loath to throw away anything that had some use left. She taught Danielle how to make and do things for herself, hovering as Danielle practiced sewing on a button. While far from wealthy, “my family didn’t squander what they had.”
Wood’s descendants, Danielle said, weathered the racial discrimination they encountered with a steely resolve that “we were going to find a way or invent a way to make it work, even if we had to wait it out.”
What might she say to her great-great-great-grandmother, who had waited 26 long years to receive a measure of justice, if she were alive today?
“I would tell her,” she said, “it was worth it.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
Story editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Allison Cho. Designed by Twila Waddy.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Arthur H. Simms Sr.'s status as an African American graduate of what is now Northwestern University’s law school. He was one of the first, not the first. This version has been corrected.
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