March 28, 2017
Women formed a central part of the abolitionist movement in the years that led up to the civil war and during war time. They participated in many varied ways, from writing and giving speeches to becoming conductors of the Underground Railroad and assisting union soldiers by organizing Sanitary Fairs around the country. There were others who participated in a more unconventional role that afforded them no agency. This is the story of one such woman, or rather, an enslaved girl of 9 years old, and her part in the abolitionist movement.
Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights and its Reverend Henry Ward Beecher would often use the enslaved as characters during sermons where he would impersonate an auctioneer and ask the congregation for offerings to purchase the enslaved persons freedom. His emotional and dramatic speeches would encourage the audience into tossing money and jewelry into collection plates; there were several girls and young women that were the subject of these “auctions."
The auction of most renown was that of Sally Maria Diggs, an enslaved 9 year old child who was also known as “Pink” or Pinky due to her fair complexion. Sally was born into slavery. Her mother and 2 brothers were sold by their owner to the state of Virginia and she and her grandmother were sold to a slave owner in Baltimore. Her grandmother was able to secure freedom for herself but not for Sally, so she enlisted the help of Reverend Beecher to secure her granddaughter's freedom. On February 6th, 1860 during an auction service at Plymouth Church led by Beecher, $1100 in money and jewelry was raised to buy Sally’s freedom. Reverend Beecher returned all the jewelry with the exception of a large fire opal ring. At the end of the auction he baptized Sally and gave her the name “Rose Ward” after Rose Terry, a poet who had put the ring in the collection plate, and Ward, his middle name. He placed the ring on Sally’s hand, saying, “With this ring I do wed thee to freedom."
This act and others like it moved Beecher’s congregation and gave them a glimpse of enslavement and the horrors of the slave auction. However to others it was viewed as typical theatrics.
After her auction, Sally Maria Diggs, now known as Rose Ward, slipped away into anonymity. She lived in Brooklyn with the family of another reverend for a short time and then returned to live with her grandmother in Washington DC. She was educated at the Howard University Normal School where she was rediscovered by the new pastor of Plymouth Church, Dr. James Stanley Durkee. She became a teacher and married a Washington lawyer named James Hunt, taking his name to become Rose Ward Hunt. She started her family and lived a quiet life. Dr. Durkee contacted and arranged to have Mrs. Hunt join Plymouth Church at its 80th anniversary celebration and commemorate the day that she was freed at auction. However an article in the May 11th 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle spoke to Mrs. Hunt’s reservations regarding reliving that moment and making the trip back to Plymouth Church.
The article stated “Today on the eve of her departure for Brooklyn to attend the 80th anniversary celebration of the church that took her out of bondage, she has gone into semi-retirement and is denying herself to all comers. Her husband, a gray-haired Negro lawyer, answers the doorbell and politely but firmly explains that his wife is giving no interviews on the 'Pinky' episode so long ago.” When pressed further about his wife’s upcoming visit to the church Mr. Hunt explained that his wife "had nothing to say about the trip” and added that she barely remembered the episode at the church, but had certain associations that kept it from fading from her mind. This spoke to the frame of mind of a 9 year old child being put in front of a packed crowd at Plymouth Church, and the uncertainty of her fate. Mr. Hunt did continue to state that there were “Lots of Mistakes” to the published reports of how “Pinky” was found but that he would not undertake to correct them. In the end the entire encounter was summed up in the most accurate way: “At the Hunt home the impression was gathered that these Negroes did not enjoy recalling that slave auction of 1860 at Plymouth Church. Hunt himself would discuss his wife’s part in it only with the greatest reluctance.” Mrs. Hunt did visit Plymouth Church in 1927 on the Church’s 80th Anniversary where she sat beside Rev. Durkee during the sermon. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle covered the story of her visit, her speech to the congregation and the thousands that turned out to see the infamous “Pinky.” It also featured the unfortunate headline “Former Slave girl greeted by thousands, regrets she did not 'make more' of her life."
Mrs. Hunt was described several times as being humble or trembling nervously, clearly overwhelmed by the amount of attention she received. She spoke of her recollection of the auction and the one thing that stood out in her memory. It was a story of a comb she wore in her hair that Rev. Beecher had her remove as he told her, “My child never wear anything in your hair other than what god put there.” According to Mrs. Hunt all other incidents in her story were repeated to her by others and felt like they were not her own recollections.
In the rest of her speech, Mrs. Hunt thanked the Plymouth Church and Reverend Beecher for their Christ-like work, love, understanding and compassion, and for their work with securing the freedom of the enslaved. She also thanked them for giving her “a good start to citizenship” and for the gift of education. She also spoke on the fact that her mother and siblings remained enslaved and were not seen by her again, and expressed her gratitude to the church that allowed her to escape the same fate. “I am glad of this opportunity to publicly acknowledge that I have always had a feeling of deep love and gratitude toward this church whose congregation did so much for me." These agents of the almighty snatched me from a fate which can only be imagined, never known, as my dear mother and brothers have not been heard of by any of our family since that separation 67 years ago.” She spoke to her optimism for the future and mentioned that she would probably not visit Plymouth Church or Brooklyn again. One year after her visit to Plymouth Church Mrs. Hunt passed away in Washington DC after a serious operation and a week of being ill.
She was commemorated in the form of a portrait of her as “Pinky the slave child” with Reverend Beecher that was painted by artist Henry Roseland. The funds for the portrait were secured by the "Negro Citizens of Brooklyn" and it was presented to the church in a special service. The Eagle’s subheadline described her as “Their Race’s Champion.”
The story of “Pinky” is not the typical take on a role played by a woman in the fight against abolition. She was not a willing participant or an adult at the time. As a child, she was put into a position that persuaded others to take note of the horrors of enslavement that encouraged them to react. Was this the best solution or way to persuasion? Absolutely not, but was it effective in getting people’s attention? Unfortunately it was. It remained vividly in the minds of those who witnessed it and became a part of Plymouth Church and Reverend Beecher's history.
There are so many more questions that can be raised about this episode in history. Mrs. Hunt and her part in Brooklyn’s abolition story is definitely one that deserves to be known and understood.
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