When I started reading this article I thought, “This is about to be some ‘tragic mulatto’ b.s.” Much to my surprise, it isn’t really. I think Sarah played the part of the tragic mulatto very well, and got exactly what she wanted and deserved. I wonder if the congregation’s response would have been different if “Pinky” hadn’t been quite so pink, but maybe “Brownie” instead. Just a thought. I also like this piece of our history because once upon a time, in a former life in which I considered myself black, I was a nanny and I worked in Brooklyn Heights and I walked by that church every day and was very drawn to it. Part of me knew… And part of me was so clueless.
On This Day in History: June 1
Rev. Beecher’s Freedom Auction
by Vernon Parker
On June 1, 1856, Henry Ward Beecher, minister of Plymouth (Congregational) Church, and an ardent supporter of the antislavery cause, held a public “auction” of a young mulatto slave named Sarah to dramatize the evils of slavery.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “she had been brought from a plantation near Staunton, Virginia.” When Sarah was called to the pulpit, she … “walked slowly, head bowed, and took a seat near the famous minister. She lifted her eyes, stared at the spellbound audience, and burst into sobs. Her plight tugged at the heart of the most stolid Congregationalist as Beecher’s inflamed rhetoric described her life. Daughter of a well-known white citizen, she had been put up for sale by her own father. The slave dealer involved contacted Beecher through a mutual friend and they struck a deal allowing Sarah to go north with the promise of either her return or the full manumission fee.”
The mock auction raised sufficient funds to purchase her freedom and buy her a modest home in Peekskill, New York.
The following is an excerpt from James H. Callender’s book Yesterdays on Brooklyn Heights: “As the anti-slavery agitation increased, Mr. Beecher thundered his invectives against the slave-owners of the South, and many of the leading men of his church were said to be directors of the famous ‘Underground Railroad’ by which fugitive slaves were passed along from the South across the border to Canada. It was at the close of one of his most powerful sermons that Mr. Beecher said he had a little matter he wished to present to the congregation. No one had any idea as to what he was going to say and the people waited in profound silence.
“He then suddenly burst forth, ‘Sarah, come up here!’ As the audience gazed, a little mulatto girl arose in the body of the church, ran up the pulpit steps and took Mr. Beecher’s hand. Turning to the assembled multitude, he said — ‘This little girl is a slave, and I have promised her owner $1,200, his price for her, or she will be returned to slavery. Pass the baskets.’ A scarcely stifled sob arose from the almost three thousand present. Bills of all denominations, jewelry, and watches and chains were flung in the overflowing baskets and when the total was counted, Mr. Beecher announced, amid thunders of applause, that Sarah was free, and enough remained to strike the shackles from the limbs of several others.”