Johns Hopkins alum Caleb McDaniel has won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for History for his recounting of the story of Henrietta Wood, who was freed from slavery in 1848 only to be kidnapped in 1853 by her employer and sold back into bondage. After she was emancipated a second time, Wood successfully sued her kidnapper, winning $2,500—the largest financial settlement for slavery restitution in U.S. history.
The book, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (Oxford University Press, 2019), was praised as "a masterfully researched meditation on reparations" by the Pulitzer jury. Throughout the book, McDaniel provides evidence that African-Americans have fought for reparations since slavery ended. He also traces the history of the convict labor system that arose after the Civil War, told through the lens of Wood's kidnapper, a Kentucky deputy sheriff named Zebulon Ward. By the time Wood's restitution case was decided by a federal court, Ward had become a wealthy businessman and a pioneer of convict leasing, further exploiting the labor of African-Americans.
McDaniel received two degrees from Johns Hopkins University: a master's degree in history in 2004 and a PhD in history in 2006.
"I learned how to become a professional historian in the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins from mentors like Ronald Walters, Dorothy Ross, and Michael Johnson," McDaniel says. "In writing the book, I also leaned heavily on the scholarship of historians who have joined the faculty more recently, including Martha Jones, François Furstenberg, and Jessica Marie Johnson."
In a review, Jones, author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, called Sweet Taste of Liberty "a heart-tugging page-turner." She added, "With fidelity to the historical record and insight into the emotions that run through it, Caleb McDaniel's Sweet Taste of Liberty tells how enslaved women lived along the jagged lines that divided house and field, city and countryside, North and South, and slavery and freedom."
Adds Walters: "Caleb is a historian who turns meticulous research into beautiful, compassionate reconstructions of the past and of the lives of those who lived it."
The Pulitzer Prize for History is accompanied by a $15,000 award. McDaniel is the incoming chair of the Department of History at Rice University.