Thursday, October 24, 2019

W. Caleb McDaniel's "Sweet Taste of Liberty"

W. Caleb McDaniel is an Associate Professor of History at Rice University, where he also serves as magister of Duncan College. His first book, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery, won the Merle Curti prize from the Organization of American Historians and the James Broussard Prize from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

McDaniel applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America, and reported the following:
Sweet Taste of Liberty tells the story of Henrietta Wood, a woman who was born enslaved in Kentucky, freed in Cincinnati before the Civil War, and then kidnapped and reenslaved in 1853 by a man named Zebulon Ward, who soon sold her away to Mississippi. In 1869, after being freed again, this time by the Thirteenth Amendment, Wood returned to the Cincinnati area, where she filed a lawsuit against Zeb Ward. Finally, in 1878, she won a judgment of $2,500 from a federal jury, perhaps the largest such sum ever awarded by a U.S. court in restitution for slavery.

The Page 99 Test doesn't work perfectly for Sweet Taste of Liberty because that page does not talk about Henrietta Wood at all, but it does give readers an impression of her adversary Ward. It introduces a major theme of the book: the intertwined histories of slavery and incarceration. And it also relates to a major question raised by the story: despite Wood's extraordinary victory in court, did Zebulon Ward actually get off cheap in the end?

In 1855, not long after he enslaved Wood, Zebulon Ward became the keeper of the Kentucky state penitentiary in Frankfort. As in many other state prisons at the time, Kentucky's state prisoners were held in isolation at night but forced to work during the day. They manufactured goods for sale---mostly hemp products such as the bagging used to bale cotton. And instead of paying the keeper of the prison a salary, the state allowed him to organize the convicts' work and then keep as much as half the profits from their labor. By the time Zeb Ward started the job in 1855, the position was known, as one newspaper put it, as "the most lucrative one in the State of Kentucky."

Ward came to Frankfort as a fortune-seeker, too. One of his prisoners was an abolitionist named Calvin Fairbank who had been convicted of aiding fugitive slaves, and Fairbank remembered a frank speech given by Ward shortly after his inauguration as keeper. "I came here to make money," Ward told the inmates, "and I'm going to do it if I kill you all."

From page 99:
The result was what Fairbank described as a "rigorous, murderous rule."
Though he had his problems with Craig as a keeper, too, Fairbank concluded that Ward "cared nothing for human life. Money was his religion." The abolitionist remembered being flogged "never less than twice" a day, usually with the kind of strap "commonly used by overseers of slaves." To avoid the punishing pace of work, more than one prisoner cut off his own hand, preferring to be sent to the infirmary as a partial amputee. Before Ward had even completed a year in the new post, thirteen convicts had died by the keeper's own report---a startling and unprecedented increase. In sum, Fairbank wrote, the lease by which Ward obtained control of the inmates "was virtually a sale, with very little difference between the condition of the prisoner and that of an actual slave."

An "actual slave" might have questioned the comparison, but Ward might not have refused it. By July 1856, he was the owner of four slaves, seven by the following year---a rising number that signaled his increasing wealth. Zeb was growing accustomed to earning his bread from other men's sweat. The keeper and his employees also seemed to specially delight in persecuting antislavery convicts such as Fairbank or James Blackburn, a married "mulatto" man who had been convicted of assisting slaves to run away and who was identified in the register of inmates by the lash marks on his back. Thomas Brown, an alleged abolitionist who had moved from Cincinnati to Kentucky in 1850 and was sent to prison on May 8, 1855, later recalled being "stripped, and flogged" with a cat-o'-nine-tails, all while the guards joked that "'Old Brown had worn himself out stealing negroes, and would not work.'" Brown also recalled something Ward himself had said upon his arrival at the jail. "The head keeper was extremely glad to get another 'Abolitionist,' as he called him, in his power, expressing with an oath, a wish to be permitted to hang all such."
After the Civil War, Ward also took over prisons in Tennessee and Arkansas, serving as an architect of the convict leasing systems that those and other southern states used to force emancipated slaves into what Douglas A. Blackmon has described as "slavery by another name."

By the end of his life, Ward's use of convict labor had helped him build an estate worth at least \$600,000, making him a multi-millionaire in today's dollars. It was a fortune built, as Page 99 begins to show, by a man who valued making money more than human life.
Visit W. Caleb McDaniel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue