Little Known Black History Fact: Elizabeth Keckley

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  • Elizabeth Keckley was a former slave in Washington D.C. who became close friends with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She befriended the wives of prominent women in D.C. to build her business as a seamstress. Keckley worked in the White House for four years and wrote a memoir called Behind the Scenes: or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Many people believed that she had broken the code of privacy by including intimate thoughts about the First Family in her novel.

    Keckley was born in Dinwiddie, Virginia in 1818. She was of mixed-race and the identity of her father was finally revealed on her mother’s deathbed to be former slave master, Armistead Burwell. Keckely’s mother was a house slave, and her daughter was literate, though it was illegal in Virginia.  As a young child she was forced to begin work at four years old. Her position in the house was nursemaid to one of the Burwell’s infants. Her age was not given consideration for any mistakes in her position; she was beat severely for accidentally tipping over the cradle of baby Elizabeth Margaret Burwell.

    When she was a young teenager, Keckley was sent to live with the Burwell’s oldest son and his wife. The lady of the home resented Elizabeth’s presence and sent her to a neighbor to be ‘broken’ from her determined spirit to survive. Though the male neighbor tried twice to whip Keckley into submission, he failed and on the third attempt, asked for Keckley’s apology and vowed to never beat her again.

    After working for Alexander Kirkland, who forced himself on Keckley and giving her a son named George, Elizabeth returned to the Burwell family and then moved she and her mother to St. Louis. After pleading for her freedom, she was finally given the $1,200 necessary to buy it from surrounding community friends. By the mid-1860’s she was able to get to Washington D.C. and work as a seamstress. She began to gain prominent clientele like Mrs. Robert E. Lee, who connected her with other socialites.

    It was through the acceptance of a rush order, that Keckley was introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln. She was chosen from a pool of women interested in the job of modiste.

    Keckley became the personal clothing designer of Mary Todd Lincoln. Her designs are seen in two portraits taken by the first lady. While working in the White House, Keckley became a Union activist, founding the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862. The name changed to the Ladies' Freedmen and Soldier's Relief Association two years later. She helped thousands of free blacks through her organization.

    Keckley became a close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, acquiring some of the President’s personal items after his assassination. She held onto Abraham Lincoln’s blood splattered clothing after his death.

    When Keckley released Behind the Scenes, she was ridiculed by the white community as breaking a code of tact among them. Although her intention was to help a tattered image of Mary Todd Lincoln who had had emotional and financial trouble after he husband’s death, it backfired. It was also said that Robert Lincoln, the son of Mary and Abraham, interfered with the book’s sales. Her relationship with Mary Lincoln was broken permanently.

    By 1892, Keckley worked in a faculty position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts. She would continue her work as a seamstress. She later died at the destitute home in 1890 and was said to be depressed from the loss of her friendship with Mary Lincoln.

    Elizabeth Keckley’s handiwork is held at the Smithsonian American History Museum. A quilt she made from fabric used on the dresses of Mary Lincoln is on display at Kent State Museum.

    Gloria Reuben portrays Keckley’s life in the current film “Lincoln,” in theaters now.
     

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