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Unsung: The Story of “Pinky”

Mar 28, 2017 11:57 AM | 0 comments

The subject of this blog post was presented at the Medgar Evers College Conference Women and the Abolitionist Movement that took place on Sunday, March 26th 2017 in celebration of Women’s History Month.

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."

Henry Ward Beecher. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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."


Churches: Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims-Slaves. Brooklyn Eagle photo collection, Brooklyn Collection.

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.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb. 6, 1860. Brooklyn Collection.

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.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Wed, May 11, 1927. Brooklyn Collection.

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." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 11 1927. Brooklyn Collection. 


                                                                                         Churches: Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims-Slaves. Brooklyn Eagle photo collection, Brooklyn Collection. 

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. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 16, 1927. Brooklyn Collection.

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.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct. 28, 1928. Brooklyn Collection.

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.”

Churches: Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims-Slaves. Brooklyn Eagle photo collection, Brooklyn Collection.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle June 3rd 1932. Brooklyn Collection.

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.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 16 1927. Brooklyn Collection. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle Sept. 4, 1938. Brooklyn Collection.

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.

Under the Expressway: Marking Time on Brooklyn's Third Avenue

Mar 7, 2017 5:54 PM | 0 comments

Blogger One More Folded Sunset and photographer Larry Racioppo are working on a series of pieces on Brooklyn's Third Avenue.  This is an excerpt from the first.  In future posts, they'll be interviewing businesses owners, uncovering art, and continuing to find inspiration in the avenue's changing landscape.

I'm drawn to city borders.  Not 'edge of town' divisions, but the ones inside the city limits, where infrastructure, for better or worse, creates some kind of boundary: a rail track, a highway, an elevated train line.  They're city landmarks, hardly ever for their architectural merits, but as barriers, and bold font strikes on a map.  Sometimes the route of a train line or highway creates a neighborhood, sometimes it hews to an older route, and sometimes it breaks the pattern of a long-established grid. Sometimes it divides communities forever.   As I walk in the city, I often follow elevated train lines. Partly it's a question of light - the shadows of the slatted tracks falling on the sidewalk or a building in the late afternoon - and partly it's the sound of the train juddering overhead.  And if you happen to be up there, the shift of the platform beneath your feet as the train arrives or departs brings the platform, the journey, the permanence of anything at all, into the slightest moment of doubt. And then life composes itself again.  Right around the elevated lines, things moves more slowly.  While Els in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn were dispensed with over half a century ago, in much of the city they're still the way of life.  From a train car, a ride on the tracks offers unparalleled views of the urban landscape.  I take the F or the D or the Q as much for the journey itself as for the shore at the end of the line: those views of sky and of rooftop, of ragged graffiti tags, of in-your-face encounters with cornices, upper-floor window drapes and every variety of store sign.  I take the train to escape the moraine of over-hyped territories farther north. It's a relief.  But I'd just as soon be down below, where life still accommodates knots of businesses resistant to rapid change.  The floating garment murals of the J & R laundromat, the clinking cocktail glasses of the Starlite Lounge, the Couch Potato of New Utrecht.  Miraculous survivors all, Julius Knipl would be reassured by all of them.  And borders like these make for a kind of infrastructure demimonde, where time and place are blurred at the edges.

Racioppo Gowanus Post

Away from the elevated subway lines, there are darker borders. Living close to Third Avenue, I dip into the sub-expressway stream regularly, especially in the nearby teens and twenties. And its waters are deep.  There's an overlay of history here.  A Lenape homeland is 'acquired' and farmed by Dutch & later other European settlers.  The area witnesses the Battle of Brooklyn. Paths become roads, then avenues; horse-drawn street cars become trolleys.  A grid fills in with housing and industry, and a succession of immigrants make their homes in the brick and frame rowhouses close to the bay. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Third is marked by the growth of the working waterfront and its attendant industries. The area is booming. By the early 1940's, Commissioner Robert Moses' Parkway arrives, and a by now flagging waterfront gets a shot in the arm from the production demands of World War II.  After the war, the area's economy sags again. The Parkway has helped to usher in the Age of the Automobile; a flight from city to suburb ensues. It also leaves Third both physically & environmentally scarred. For those immigrants who come to the neighborhood post-war, steady, well-paid jobs are thinner on the ground, and like the rest of urban America, by the 60's and 70's the area falls victim to economic and social turbulence. After a period of slow, steady recovery at the end of the century, the waterfront becomes once again a speculatory landscape, ripe for 'repurposing,' and bigger, outside players are ready to make moves on the area.  As a misguided realtor put it, blissfully unaware of a typographical Freudian slip, the area's "bourgeoning."

The avenue today is certainly softer than it used to be, and pictures of thirty years ago show as much.  Its transition continues, and commercial rents and property prices are booming.  Some of the older businesses are holding their ground, while others are closing or moving away.  There are fewer auto shops today, and the sex shops - video parlors and strip clubs - are thinner on the ground. Industry City, once dubbed by the New York Times "the Soho of Sunset Park," promotes a re-invented neighborhood, replete with co-working 'creatives,' and 'artisans,' and catering to expensive tastes. An $18 cup of coffee and a $600 marble dog bowl are yours for the taking here.  A developer-driven city plan for a sleek new BQX streetcar on Third is purported to help transit-starved lower-income residents, but many suspect other motives behind the apparent benevolence.  Some residents and businesses are buoyed by the new wealth coming into the area, while others fiercely resist the forces of gentrification.

Even tamed from its harder-edged decades, Third's still got its own rich, particular presence, and the aging expressway's still formidable.  Ever-cautious, I race across its lanes, but if the light's against me mid-way, I have to admit I don't much mind. I like the expressway's dank median, sometimes so much that I'll miss the white light and have to wait all over again.  Look about: a bevy of trucks, an exterminator's van worked over in technicolor, a windscreen memorial to a lost driver. Look up: the girders do have a certain beauty, and the shade of green paint that coats them looks like oxidized copper.  Still, I can't believe they're capable of holding up the traffic overhead.  How does this hulk of iron & cement stay standing?  By all objective standards I should hate the expressway, but that's not entirely the case.  Against my better judgement it draws me in.

Much of the history of this area is well documented - its colonization, its Scandinavian heritage, its waterfront heyday, and the waves of colonists and immigrants - from Dutch through to Mexican & Central American - who have made this piece of Lenapehoking their home. But some of its history is vague in aspect.  The first Dutch house in Brooklyn was sited where exactly?  A nineteenth century streetcar stable partially survives a Moses demolition blitz, but fades into anonymity. Photographs record the demolition as it happens, but what of the photographer himself, who remains something of a cipher?  We'll look at a short stretch of the avenue, between Prospect and 38th, and observe its passage through time.  We'll see it through the shadows and the girders of expressway, and we'll walk with Whitman - "one of the few artists who could see past the infrastructure to the souls it carried" - for inspiration.

"When Commissioner Moses finds the surface of the earth too congested for one of his parkways, he lifts the road into the air and continues it on its way."-November 1, 1941, New York Times

Gowanus Parkway - BPL

At the opening ceremony for the Gowanus Parkway, the Times, effusive with praise, cast Moses as an Olympian, and in the process of planning and executing his parkway vision he certainly showed a Greek god's indifference to mere mortals.  Residents along the parkway's southern path pleaded for an alternate path, taking it along Second Avenue instead, away from the commercial hub of Third, but Moses had little sympathy.  He declared the area around Third "a slum," and suggested that using the existing structure of the elevated train line below 38th would be a money saver.  For Third Avenue residents north of 38th there was no elevated line; the Fifth Avenue El traveled down Fifth from Flatbush, before it swung over to Third at 38th.  In The Power Broker, Robert Caro's brilliant biography of Moses, Caro describes the effect the Parkway had on the Sunset Park community, but he pays less attention to the northern section of the Parkway route, and concentrates instead on the area from 38th to 63rd, defined as Sunset Park.  The issue of neighborhood names arises here. The date by which Sunset Park (below 36th or 38th) became a neighborhood name & not just a park is hard to call, though some sources have cited it as the 1950's or '60's. By most accounts though, the area above 38th was still South Brooklyn in 1940.  And before it was South Brooklyn, it was Gowanus.  Today the stretch above 38th is one of those moniker no-man's-lands. Is it South Brooklyn (outdated by now?), Sunset Park, or the newer Greenwood Heights? Today the Sunset Park border begins anywhere from 16th south. (Perhaps the Parkway & the Prospect Expressway markers were influential here.) Neighborhood names, it seems, are fiercely guarded, and today they fall victim to realtor appropriation & hyperbole, and the backlash to same.  They depend on standpoint - age, ethnicity, political persuasion, economic interest.  Where you live though, is largely a consequence of when you arrived on the scene.

The Sunset Park Caro focused on in The Power Broker suffered more than its South Brooklyn neighbors when the Parkway was built, in that the parkway divided a substantial residential community, west of Third Avenue, from the rest of Sunset Park, but all along the avenue's path the effects were catastrophic.  Extensive demolition took place around Hamilton Avenue, the northern point of the Parkway, and all along the east side of Third a more than one hundred foot slice of buildings was demolished.  Over 1,300 families were displaced.

And through that shadow, down on the ten-lane surface road beneath the parkway, rumbles (from before dawn until after dark after the opening of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel flooded the area with freight traffic) regiments, brigades, divisions of huge tractor-trailer trucks, engines gunning and backfiring, horns blasting, brakes screeching, so that a tape recording of Third Avenue at midday could have been used as the soundtrack for a movie or of a George Patton tank column.  And from above, from the parkway itself, came the continual surging, dull, surf-like roar, punctuated, of course, by more backfires and blasts and screeches, of the cars passing overhead.  Once Third Avenue had been friendly.  Now it was frightening.

The never bucolic Parkway became an Expressway in 1961, when it was widened, and redefined as an interstate.  This was all part of an expansion, through Bay Ridge, to the yet-to be-completed Verrazano Bridge, with more demolition & displacement along the way. Whatever its name, the roadway has never been popular.  A blight on the avenue, a danger to pedestrians and drivers alike, a source of noxious environmental damage.  For decades it's served as a symbol of transit failure: its design outdated, its structure degraded, and its capacity to handle traffic woefully insufficient. It's synonymous with bleak traffic updates on 1010 WINS.  For decades the community has demanded its replacement, and for a while a tunnel looked like a real possibility, but plans were ultimately shelved. 'Interim' repairs continue.

Color photos by Larry Racioppo, 1993. To read One More Folded Sunset’s complete post about the long history of Third Avenue, including more images from the Brooklyn Collection, click here, and stay tuned for more posts on Third Avenue.