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Former Student Wins 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Texas A&M University former student Caleb McDaniel ‘00, ‘01 (M.A.) shares Henrietta Wood's story, which sheds light on what life was like for Black women in America in the 19th century.

By Rachel Knight ‘18

Cover of McDaniel's Pulitzer Prize winning book.

With hard work, dedication, and a little help from philanthropists, McDaniel was able to share Hennrieta Wood’s inspirational story in his Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Texas A&M University former student Dr. Caleb McDaniel ‘00, ‘01 (M.A.) won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book titled Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America.

The story McDaniel shares in Sweet Taste of Liberty follows the life of Henrietta Wood, who was born into slavery; taken to Cincinnati in 1848 and legally freed; abducted and sold back into slavery in 1853; remained enslaved in Robertson County near Hearne, Texas, throughout the Civil War; regained her freedom and returned to Cincinnati in 1869; and in 1870 sued the man who abducted her and sold her back into slavery. A federal jury awarded her $2,500, which was the largest known amount ever awarded by an American court in restitution for slavery.

The book is full of twists, turns, compelling characters, and unbelievable events that tell Wood’s story. Like Wood, McDaniel has an inspiring story of his own about how he came to write Sweet Taste of Liberty, and it started at Texas A&M in the College of Liberal Arts. 

Starting a Scholastic Journey
McDaniel chose to study history at Texas A&M because he was offered a President’s Endowed Scholarship

“I wouldn’t have been able to attend Texas A&M without it,” he shared. “Philanthropic support has been crucial for me throughout my career.”

Without McDaniel, Wood’s story may not have been written for scholars and the general public alike; and without financial support from donors, McDaniel wouldn’t have been able to begin his scholastic journey that ultimately resulted in Sweet Taste of Liberty

“I got a great education in the College of Liberal Arts,” McDaniel said. “[Mentors in the college] set me on my path towards the doctorate. I still think about classes and advice I received from faculty members like David Vaught, Al Broussard, April Hatfield, Steve Daniel, and Craig Kallendorf. When I teach students today at Rice University, I think back to the teaching that I received at Texas A&M and try to pass it on to them.”

Mentoring future scholars is a responsibility taken very seriously by Dr. Albert S. Broussard, history professor and Cornerstone Faculty Fellow. Broussard taught McDaniel in his upper-level African-American history courses, and says he is very proud of McDaniel’s achievements as a fellow scholar.

“A mentor is neither a father-figure nor a mother, but someone who takes an active interest in the learning and inquisitiveness of his students,” Borssaurd shared. “I think it is important to mentor all your students to the degree they are willing to learn and allow themselves to be challenged instead of simply going through the motions. I learned decades ago to never underestimate the impact that you, as a professor, could potentially have on a young mind.”

While McDaniel’s professors left an impression on him, he was also leaving impressions on faculty members. Dr. James Rosenheim, emeritus professor of history and former director of the Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, judged an undergraduate essay contest that McDaniel participated in his senior year. 

“After 20 years, I still remember being impressed by Dr. McDaniel’s paper,” Rosenheim explained. “It seemed perfectly capable of having come from the pen of a graduate student. It was far beyond what I had ever encountered from my undergraduates taking an advanced level course and doing primary research.”

McDaniel mastered the art of using primary sources, or first-hand accounts of a topic, as a student at Texas A&M, and used those skills to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning book. The importance of piecing together primary sources to tell the truth of society’s past is easily seen in Sweet Taste of Liberty and in slavery’s lasting affects on our society today.

“When a professor like Caleb McDaniel writes a Pulitzer Prize-winning book like Sweet Taste of Liberty, he’s not just answering questions about the African-American past in U.S. history,” said Carlos Kevin Blanton, department head of history at Texas A&M. “He’s also getting at very real issues that we have today when we talk about reparations, what we owe to the past, and the legacy of slavery. Slavery doesn’t just end. It’s legacy lives on through policies and practices. We’re still arguing over the same issues.”

Blanton explained that historians don’t just examine the past because they enjoy learning about what happened long ago. Instead, they look to the past to find answers about issues we’re grappling with in the present. This is true of McDaniel’s research that ultimately led him to write his latest book, though how he landed on Wood’s story is a tale of its own. 

“In 2014, I was doing research about enslaved people who were forcibly brought to Texas during the Civil War,” McDaniel said. “A friend and colleague sent me a newspaper article from the 1870s that featured Wood’s story. When I started learning more about her story and how she had eventually returned to Cincinnati and filed a lawsuit for restitution, it caught my interest and it quickly became clear that it deserved a book all on its own.”

A Well-Rounded Education Equals Success
Wood’s story as told by McDaniel explores the greater human experience, which is what a well-rounded education in liberal arts teaches students to do. McDaniel said his liberal arts education is so versatile partially because of mentors he had in the Texas A&M University Honors Program, who encouraged him to take classes in English, philosophy, and political science in addition to history. This encouragement ultimately led McDaniel to his master’s degree in a different liberal arts field—philosophy. 

Just like faculty in the history department, those in the philosophy department at Texas A&M were proud to learn of McDaniel’s most recent success. 

“It is wonderful to be part of a department that has contributed an education in philosophy to such an accomplished scholar—an education that seeks to deepen one’s sense of the meaning and variety of human experience, to allow one to see others and the world in new ways, and to develop one’s critical, analytical, and interpretive abilities,” said Ted George, department head of philosophy. 

Seeing others in new ways through the exploration of the human experience is the key to the importance of Sweet Taste of Liberty, according to McDaniel. 

There are still a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding the mystery of slavery and the Civil War even today. It’s important for historians to go back to the primary sources and documents and reconstruct the truth as best we can,” McDaniel explained. “We especially need to find ways to talk about the experiences of enslaved people like Wood. The archives that we have don’t always make it easy to find stories like hers, but it’s really an important part of American history to capture the experiences of women, and Black women in particular in the 19th century.”

Overcoming Scholarly Challenges
Piecing together the truth about the past is no small task—when McDaniel began researching Wood’s story, he quickly realized uncovering her past would necessitate a lot of travel.

“It required a lot of ‘detective’ work to piece together her story, including looking at archived documents scattered across different states,” McDaniel shared. “There were gaps in her story that couldn’t quite be filled otherwise. It was also challenging to write about this story in a way that recognized her achievement, but not in a way that downplayed the horrors that she endured or the problem that continues for African Americans even after emancipation and after her legal victory. ”

McDaniel’s detective work, travel, and time taken to write the story in the most compelling and appropriate way were made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Similar endowments are donated to professors at Texas A&M University, and play a similar role in these faculty member’s successes. 

As department head of the history department at Texas A&M, Blanton says there are many opportunities to help support scholars and future scholars alike. “As the history department continues to expand the way in which we enhance the undergraduate experience, there are lots of opportunities to support new discoveries and explorations of the greater human experience,” Blanton said. “Who knows how many Pulitzer Prizes we can help shape along the way with a little more giving?”

Winning a Pulitzer Prize
While McDaniel’s former mentors and colleagues expressed great pride in his achievements as a scholar, McDaniel said the real prize is knowing that Wood’s story is finally getting the recognition it deserves. 

“To me, the greatest outcome of receiving the Pulitzer Prize is that more people will likely learn about Henrietta Wood’s story,” McDaniel explained. “It’s an honor to her and a credit to her resilience and determination to tell her own story. I’m very happy that the Pulitzer Board recognized a story like hers as a significant chapter of American history.”