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A Voice from the Past

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on October 11, 2019

Preserved in Brooklyn Historical Society’s collections is a wax audio cylinder from 1927 with a big story to tell.

Intent listeners will just make out the soft voice of a woman identified as “Mrs. Hunt.” She thanks the congregation of Plymouth Church for inviting her to Brooklyn Heights to celebrate “the memory of one whose name always seems to me to be the complement of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.”

Although a somewhat obscure figure today, Mrs. Hunt, (also known as Sally Maria Diggs, Rose Ward, and, troublingly, “Pinky,” throughout her life), shared a unique connection to Beecher. Her story reveals intriguing details about slavery and freedom, abolitionism, and the complex legacy of racism in nineteenth-century Brooklyn and the United States.

Beecher was one of the most famous (or infamous) Brooklynites of the nineteenth century. The son of prominent Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher and brother to Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward quickly made a name for himself when he moved to Brooklyn in 1847.

Henry Ward Beecher, cabinet card, circa 1860-1880, V1987.4.1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

His theatrical and relatable preaching style made him incredibly popular with the public. He was also a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery – one of the most central and divisive issues that shaped American politics and society.

In 1848, in order to promote awareness of the cruelties of slavery, Beecher began holding mock “slave auctions” at Plymouth Church. These auctions were essentially fundraisers that co-opted the format of the auction block to reveal the visceral horrors of slavery to his congregants. Always featuring young, typically light-skinned, enslaved women and girls, these spectacles allowed Beecher to loudly lambast American slavery while raising money to purchase the freedom of these enslaved women.

“Mr. Beecher selling a beautiful slave girl in his pulpit,” circa 1850, V1973.6.523; Brooklyn Historical Society

This is where Mrs. Hunt comes in. In 1860, she was a nine-year-old enslaved child from just outside Washington D.C. named Sally Maria Diggs, chosen by Beecher as the next beneficiary of one of his auctions. A surviving bill of sale in Brooklyn Historical Society’s collections shows that the Reverend John Falkner Blake of Alexandria, Virginia purchased Diggs from her enslaver, John C. Cook, for nine hundred dollars. It was Blake who brought Diggs to Beecher’s attention. The funds that Beecher’s congregation raised went to Blake in exchange for his manumitting the young girl.

Sally Marie Diggs bill of sale, 1860; Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection; ARC.212; Box 73; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Although Beecher’s auctions were steeped in abolitionist ideals and goals, they were nevertheless a product of his era’s racist status quo, one built upon social and scientific prejudices regarding skin color. Beecher’s selection of light-skinned enslaved women was purposeful. By featuring young girls with complexions close to those of his white congregants, Beecher garnered sympathy and support for abolition while still buying into racist beliefs centered on the spectrum of blackness. Even Sally Maria Diggs’ nickname “Pinky” by its very nature was racist, elevating Digg’s perceived social value based entirely on her skin shade.

For Diggs herself, the auction was a significant but complex moment in her life. Although Beecher’s congregation raised more than $1,000 dollars to secure her freedom from slavery, this only occurred after her mother and sisters were sold South by Cook, separating them forever. During her “sale,” Beecher also christened Diggs with a new name, Rose Ward, combining a part of his name with that of one of his parishioners, Rose Terry, who contributed a ring to the collection to purchase the young girl’s freedom.

Although this act stripped her of her previous identity, Rose Ward persevered in her new life with her new name. After the auction, she returned to Washington DC with her grandmother, Chloe Diggs, where she worked as a seamstress before attending Howard University. While in college she met her husband James Hunt, taking his name and raising a family.

"'Pinky' Thanks Plymouth for Freedom," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 16, 1927.

Rose’s return to Plymouth Church for its 80th anniversary celebration stirred great interest, but some locals were disappointed by her scant recollections of the mock auction. Local newspapers noted that she admitted to having few memories of Beecher, only that he had removed a comb from her head and told her to “never wear anything in your hair that God did not put there.” Glorifying the generosity of the Plymouth Church congregation, headlines reduced Mrs. Hunt to “Pinky” and dismissed the trauma of this event in her life.

Rose Ward Hunt passed away in 1928, just a year after her Brooklyn visit. Her voice, however, preserved in the BHS collection, survives, a reminder to future generations that Brooklyn was a key battleground in the complex negotiation of slavery and racism in America.

The wax cylinder is part of the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims and Henry Ward Beecher collection, ARC .212. For more information, please see our finding aid here or visit the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrim’s webpage here. Digitization of the Rose Ward Hunt Wax Cylinder was generously funded by Marj and Bill Coleman. 

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