This case stands out as rather peculiar considering the facts and circumstances. Ms. Henrietta Wood was a slave owned by Mrs. Jane Cirode who initially lived in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1847 Mrs. Cirode moved, with Ms. Wood, to Cincinnati. Upon their arrival in the city, and given that the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in Ohio, Cirode fully discharged Wood of her former duties and granted her freedom. During the next several years Mrs. Cirode ran a series of boarding houses around the city of Cincinnati as noted in the city directories; however Wood was not as easily tracked. Ms. Wood was a free woman living in the city of Cincinnati. When Cirode died her descendants resented the fact that Ms. Wood, a free woman living in Cincinnati, would not be included in their inheritance as she would have been if Wood were still a slave. Desiring to retrieve their human “property,” Mrs. Cirode’s children managed to lure Wood back to Kentucky where she was sold into slavery in the Deep South.
While being held in Covington, Kentucky in the possession of Zeb Ward, Ms. Wood filed a claim with the Fayette county circuit court trying to regain her liberty. In the initial case, the court found that the plaintiff, Wood, had no standing to sue in a court of law. The court ruled that she was, in fact, a slave which meant she was not a person before the law and had no legal way of recapturing her freedom. She was subsequently sold several times and ended up on a plantation in the Deep South. Wood spent fifteen years back in slavery and worked much of this time in Mississippi and Texas until she earned her freedom for the second time through the Thirteenth Amendment. At that time, she made her way back to Cincinnati and appealed her case. In the 1870 Census, she was listed as working for Harvey Myers, probably a white man, who lived in Covington, Kentucky. She was a domestic servant for the Myers family; however, she did not live in the house. She is listed with other African-American servants on the property.
Once her case made its way up to the Circuit Court of Ohio, the question before the justices was whether or not Ms. Wood could have a re-examination of the same question that had been tried in case presented to the Fayette County Court. In 1855 the Federal Circuit Court heard the first appeal and affirmed the Fayette County Court’s decision that Ms. Wood had no legal standing due to her status as a slave. After Emancipation, Wood made her way back to Cincinnati where another appeal was filed in which the Federal District Court of Ohio determined that the dismissal of the case by the Fayette County Court was not a decision of fact, but rather a dismissal based on lack of standing, and she could therefore have her case heard. They also determined that the damages assessed were not excessive and should be awarded to Wood. The outcome meant that Zeb Ward owed Ms. Wood a grand total of $2500. This case contains considerable significance because an African American woman had presented her case in a federal court and won. At the time of the initial case back in 1853, Wood was walking a very thin line. She stood out not only because she was a woman, but because she illuminated the barrier between slave and free that was the Ohio River. She had come to enjoy her freedom in the free state of Ohio, but once on the other side in Kentucky, all her rights and once enjoyed freedoms went out the window.
Discover more about Fayette County Courthouse, where Wood filed her claim, at History Pin.