Teaching United States History is excited to present Teach My Book, a series of posts where distinguished authors reflect on their work and how instructors might integrate their insights into the classroom. Our thoughts today come from W. Caleb McDaniel, Associate Professor of History at Rice University. Dr. McDaniel is the author of The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (LSU, 2013). He is discussing his new book, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.
- Can you give us a brief overview of your book’s argument, narrative, and historiographical contribution?
Sweet Taste of Liberty is the first book to tell the story of Henrietta Wood, a twice-enslaved, twice-emancipated woman who sued one of her former owners for restitution after the Civil War—and won. The man she sued, Zebulon Ward, was also an architect of the convict leasing system in the antebellum and postbellum South.
By presenting their lives, and especially Wood’s, in narrative form, the book is designed to help students and historians think about slavery, freedom, and reparations in new ways. For example, what did freedom mean without restitution for slavery? How thin was the line between slavery and freedom in particular places at particular times? How did enslaved and formerly enslaved people use their knowledge of the law to advocate for justice? And what difference did restitution make in the life of a woman like Wood?
- How does your book shape the broadest narratives in American history? How should survey courses in American history reflect the arguments and evidence of your study?
Many students probably come into American history classes familiar with the broad outlines of present-day debates about the way we remember slavery and the Civil War, as well as ongoing struggles about reparations. I think that a narrative history like Sweet Taste of Liberty is a valuable way for students to engage in discussion of these topics and to do so with a focus on a particular enslaved woman’s life. As a longtime instructor of undergraduates myself, I also wrote the book with students partly in mind. I want the book to raise questions for discussion in class, rather than provide final answers.
This book is also unique in the range of experiences of slavery and freedom that it includes. Wood’s life before her lawsuit against Ward covered five decades in five states. She spent those years in situations that ran the gamut of nineteenth-century African American life. She experienced urban slavery in the Upper South and the Lower South, and she experienced being “hired out.” She lived on a small Upper South farm, as well as on cotton plantations both large and small. She worked as a domestic servant in white households, both while enslaved and as a free woman. She experienced being sold through a local exchange between neighbors as well as being sold “down the river” at one of the largest slave markets in the country, the Forks of the Road in Natchez, Mississippi. She experienced separation from family members, but she also experienced reunion with some. Alternately described as a “black” woman and as a “mulatto” woman, she knew well the various dangers—political, economic, social, and sexual—to which people of color were exposed in the United States.
Because Henrietta Wood encountered abolitionists and free black communities in Ohio and kidnappers and slave traders in Kentucky, her story also spotlights the “border states” where sectional tensions over slavery often erupted into violence. In general, Civil War enthusiasts still camp out, literally and figuratively, on the eastern seaboard, where the biggest military battles were fought. But recent historians attribute the coming and outcome of the Civil War to the numerous smaller battles waged for freedom in the states where Wood lived.
Wood’s story also encompasses the War itself, which dramatically altered and ultimately destroyed the slaveholding South. Yet because she was also forcibly removed to Texas during the War, she also was among the last of the nation’s four million slaves to actually be freed. In fact, this book is one of the few aimed at general audiences that explains the “refugeeing” of Confederate planters to Texas, a little-studied phenomenon that resulted in the removal of as many as 150,000 enslaved people beyond the reach of the federal army, extending the life of slavery beyond the Civil War. Recent scholarship is encouraging historians to rethink the history of emancipation as a process, rather than a definitive break in time, and this narrative can help advance classroom conversations about that historiography.
Finally, after her victory in court, which introduces students to the politics of Reconstruction, Wood moved with her son to Chicago, where she lived until 1912 and he lived until 1951. The epilogue of the book therefore takes students up to the mid-twentieth century.
In short, while many biographies of enslaved people remain tightly focused on one area or small period of time, this book presents something rarer: an individual odyssey that can still introduce students to an extraordinarily wide spectrum of experiences from the antebellum period all the way through the Great Migration and the early Civil Rights Movement in the north.
- What courses commonly taught at the college level besides the survey would most benefit from considering your work?
The chronological and topical range should make this book suitable for adoption in undergraduate and graduate courses on African American history, surveys of United States history, slavery, Southern history, legal history, and the Civil War era.
- If instructors were to excerpt a chapter or two from your book, which chapters do you think would be most useful, and why?
The Prologue and the Epilogue together might work well. If I were teaching the book myself, one thing I would ask students is how they would answer the question in the last line of the Epilogue.
- Did your book utilize any publicly available primary sources? If so, what are they, what did they do for your study, and how might instructors use them in their classes?
One of the unique aspects of this book is the fact that I conducted my research for it in the open. My research notes, and many of my primary sources, are available at a wiki I actively updated during my research. (My website also has an essay I wrote about why I did this.) By clicking on the “history” tab at the top of any page on the Wiki, students can see how my research evolved over time and how particular discoveries directed me to other ones.
The “wiki” comes with the disclaimer that not all of the notes are fully up to date—the book is the finished product and should be consulted for all citations. Still, it could provide a useful resource to teachers who want to “open the hood” and show students how historical research takes place. It could even be useful as a starting point for assignments where students are asked to generate their own narratives using sources linked from the wiki that were not included explicitly in the book.