Photo courtesy University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries
Before she ever became the dressmaker and confidante to first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckly traveled an arduous path through life. Around 1818, she was born into slavery in Dinwiddie County and through periods of her young life, she suffered at the hands of her masters — repeated beatings and sexual abuse became commonplace at times in her life.
The product of a mixed-race union, Keckly's life-long effort to find a place to fit extended even to her name. Historian Jennifer Fleischner, whose 2003 Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly analyzed the two women's friendship, points out that Elizabeth wrote her last name without the second "e". "The ‘e' was somehow added on in the publication of her book," Fleischner says of the memoir that the seamstress wrote and published after her four years in the White House.
Keckly is portrayed by actress Gloria Reuben — alongside Sally Field in the role of Mrs. Lincoln — in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln opening this month.
The ironies that filled Keckly's life were possibly never more apparant than on April 6, 1865, when the former slave accompanied Mrs. Lincoln to Richmond, the newly defeated Confederate capital. Here, on a tour of the state Capitol building, where the secessionist congress had convened, she sat in the chair once occupied by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The president's wife came to Richmond in part because her husband had visited the city on April 4, the day following the Evacuation Fire, without her. Keckly later wrote that the Capitol building "presented a desolate appearance — desks broken, and papers scattered promiscuously in the hurried flight of the Confederate Congress. I picked up a number of papers, and, by curious coincidence, the resolution prohibiting all free colored people from entering the State of Virginia."
A day later, Keckly and the first lady visit Petersburg. Still standing was 314 N. Sycamore St., where Keckly once lived with her mother and son from 1845 to 1847. She was brought there when her owners Hugh and Anne Burwell Garland's financial reversals forced them to quit their plantation. Despite the circumstance of slavery, Keckly regarded Virginia as home. What the civil conflict wreaked there proved difficult to see, she recalled later in her memoir.
During her childhood in Dinwiddie County, Elizabeth and her mother, Agnes, tended to the children of plantation owners Armistead and Mary Burwell. Armistead Burwell, it turns out, was probably Elizabeth's actual father.
In 1832, when Elizabeth was 14, she was sent to Hillsborough, N.C., as a charitable loan to Burwell's eldest son, Robert, unable to afford his own servants. There she was repeatedly flogged to break her "stubborn pride." She further endured four years of sexual abuse by Alexander Kirkland, a Burwell neighbor, and as a result gave birth in 1839 to a son, George, who took Kirkland's name. She was sent to another Burwell family member, Anne, who married Hugh Garland.
The Garlands moved to St. Louis in 1847, Elizabeth and Agnes among the servants, but the family struggled financially. Elizabeth used her skill as a seamstress to help support the 17-member household and became an in-demand dressmaker.
Elizabeth arranged to purchase freedom for herself and George freedom for $1,200. In St. Louis, around 1852, she married James Keckly, who represented himself as free but instead turned out to be a "dissipated" slave. After Elizabeth's patrons loaned her the amount that led to her emancipation in 1855, she remained in St. Louis to repay the loan. In 1860, Elizabeth left her husband to continue her rise as a fine dressmaker — a "modiste," first in Baltimore then Washington D.C., where she made gowns for women of Washington society.
Keckly is known primarily for her book written three years after Lincoln's assassination, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. She wrote it ostensibly to deflect criticism against Mary Lincoln for selling off her expensive dresses to stave off destitution. But the white press greeted the book with disgust, and black commentators didn't like her revelations, either.
Mary Lincoln shared with Keckly the trauma of a child's death. George left college in Ohio to join the military and was killed in his first engagement at Wilson's Creek, Mo., Aug. 10, 1861. The Lincolns' second son, William Wallace, nicknamed "Willie," died at the White House on Feb. 20, 1862, of typhoid symptoms. Keckly witnessed Mary Lincoln's "paroxysms of grief" and the president's quiet sadness at his son's bedside.
It was personal moments like these that Keckly revealed; intimate, often emotional and poignant scenes of the Lincoln family and their White House life.
For certain, other African-Americans had been in the White House, but Keckly was the first both to have been as close to the presidential couple and then write about it. Keckly claimed that her literary counselor James Redpath printed personal letters of Mary Lincoln to "Lizzie" in the book's appendices without Keckly's knowledge.
Writer Jean H. Baker notes that Keckly "no doubt became Mrs. Lincoln's ‘closest friend' despite or perhaps because of the inequality between an ex-slave, mulatto seamstress and a president's wife." In Washington, D.C., where the Lincolns were outsiders, and Mary Lincoln viewed as even more so, her trusted female intimate also stood at society's fringe.
Fleischner describes their relationship as "secret sharers."
"Whatever Mary's outsiderism,"Fleischner says, "she was white, and so when ‘betrayed' by her black servant, white ranks closed around her."
Thus, after the book's scandal, and Keckly's rejection by both Mrs. Lincoln and her son Robert, Keckly's upper-class apparel business withered. During the 1890s, she taught domestic science at Wilberforce University. She lived out her later years, however, at the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, a charitable institution she helped establish. She died from a stroke on May 26, 1907.