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There’s an old story about Abraham Lincoln visiting a slave auction when he was younger. Observing the proceedings from the rear of the crowd, his attention was caught by a strong, defiant, young slave girl with sharp, angry eyes.

Something in her manner pierced him. The sheer intensity of her gaze spoke to him of the anguish of her captivity and her longing for freedom. When it was her turn to step to the auction block, he and several others bid. With each rise in price, her hostility grew. Finally, Lincoln won, paid the money, and had her brought to him.

She came, rigid with resistance, arms tied behind her back, leg chains dragging.

“Untie her,” Lincoln said.

“Oh no, sir!” her auctioneer responded, pulling her forward with a jerk. “She be a wild one! Ain’t no end o’ trouble in her. Ya best git her home afore ya be takin’ her chains off.” With that, he secured her to the horse rail, turned, and left.

Lincoln stood quietly for a moment, looking at the young woman. “What is your name?” he asked.

She did not respond.

“What are you called?” he repeated.

Steeling herself for the inevitable blow, she set her jaw, stared at the ground, and said nothing.

Taking the bill of sale from his pocket, Lincoln read it carefully, then marked the bottom with his signature. Slowly he stooped, undid the clasp of her ankle irons, and untied the rope that had cut into her wrists.

“You’re free to go, Sara-Jane,” he said, handing her the document. “You are free to choose your own life now.”

Reaching again into his pocket, he drew out a card and several coins. “If you have any trouble,” he said, “call on me at this address and I will help you.”

As the reality of what she had heard seeped slowly through her brain and into her muscles, the young woman grew weak and unable to sustain her rage. Minutes ticked by as anger gave way to confusion, and confusion to disbelief. Like someone in the grip of a personal earthquake, shockwaves of agonizing hope rippled through the muscles of her face. As she fought for control, her jaw clenched, then settled again; her muscular shoulders convulsed, then were still. Finally, a large, work-callused hand rose to take the papers and the money. Instantly, she turned and ran.

Lincoln watched as she disappeared down the rutted road.

Taking the reins of his horse, he began to mount when he saw her suddenly stop. Some distance away, she stood totally still. More minutes passed. Then, slowly, deliberately, she made her way back. Standing in front of him, she handed him the money.

“I choose you,” she said, looking up for the first time into Lincoln’s gaunt, craggy face.“You say I choose my own life now,” she continued haltingly,“ … that I work for who I want. You give me papers to show that I be free.” The deep sinkholes of her oval face were wet with emotion.“If that be true . . . if I be free . . . then I choose you.”

In the midst of racial unrest of our own times, it is important that we know and dwell upon the history of slavery and racism in our country. Every time I read this story, my eyes are filled with tears, as they should be filled with tears. This is the country and the racism I was born into and will die in. Hopefully, along the way, I’ve helped a Sara-Jane’s life to be a bit better rather than a whole lot worse.  

What Sara-Jane have YOU helped in YOUR life?


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