A Slave Girl’s “Freedom Ring”

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Eastman Johnson,  The Freedom Ring  (1860)

Eastman Johnson, The Freedom Ring (1860)

I recently ran upon a fascinating and powerful story from America’s antebellum days (“antebellum” meaning “before the war”; “ante” = before, “bellum” = war). It’s related to this portrait of a beautiful African girl—a young woman who grew up a slave, but through providential circumstances won her freedom.

She grew up with a nickname of “Pinky." She would go on to change her name to Rose Ward. You can see in the painting (done in 1860) that she is looking intensely at a ring on her finger. In the painting, she is 9 years old.

You see, “Pinky" was born a slave, and as a young girl, her mother, brothers, and grandmother were all sold off to different slaveowners. Her grandmother managed to purchase her own freedom, and then tried to help purchase her granddaughter's. She reached out to pastor Henry Ward Beecher, in New York. He agreed to help purchase her freedom, with the one condition that she be brought to New York.

Based on his promise to purchase the child's freedom, the slaveowner, who was somehow familiar with him, allowed “Pinky” to go to the North. There, Beecher held a Sunday service to raise the rest of the money to secure her freedom. He describes it as follows:

So she was brought here and placed upon this platform; and the rain never fell faster than the tears fell from many of you that were here. The scene was one of intense enthusiasm. The child was bought, and overbought. The collection that was taken on the spot was enough, and more than enough, to purchase her. It so happened…that a lady known to literary fame as Miss Rose Terry was present; and as, like many others, she had not with her as much money as she wanted to give, she took a ring off from her hand and threw it into the contribution-box. That ring I took and put on the child’s hand, and said to her, ‘Now remember that this is your freedom-ring.’ Her expression, as she stood and looked at it for a moment, was pleasing to behold; and Eastman Johnson, the artist, was so much interested in the occurrence that he determined to present it on canvas, and he painted her looking at her freedom-ring…

This is the painting Beecher mentions—little “Pinky" gazing at her “freedom ring," provided by Miss Rose Terry upon her newly acquired freedom. It was painted by Eastman Johnson in 1860. Johnson was a white man and an ardent abolitionist—a great deal of his art focused on emphasizing the humanity of slaves and black people.

As a result of Beecher’s help, she received a rudimentary education, which she used to become a teacher and missionary in the South (after the war). Her new name, “Rose Ward," came from Terry's first name, and Beecher's middle name—a testament to her gratitude to both.

Beecher would write: “Now, it suits me exactly to have this child brought out of slavery, redeemed on this platform, and grow up and develop a Christian disposition, and go back and labor for her people."

What a beautiful story! Even in the darkest times and circumstances, God's people are at the front lines of justice and righteousness.

“Do not be afraid!"