Elizabeth Keckley

I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man – I spare the world his name – had base designs upon me. I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I became a mother. The child of which he was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world. If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.(Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes. 1868)

keckleyElizabeth Keckley was born a slave in 1818. After she was separated from her parents at an early age, she was brutalized and raped. She rose to prominence as a seamstress and among her clients were several elite white women of the era including the families of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Her friends included Frederick Douglass, Francis Grimke and Anna Julia Cooper. At one point she became Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal seamstress and confidante. She helped to establish several relief organizations for blacks in need. Upon the publishing of her story, Behind the Scenes, white American sentiment turned against her and she lost her thriving business.  Mary Todd Lincoln’s son Robert halted the publication and sale of the book (though it was republished in 1998). Elizabeth Keckley died in 1907 in one of the homes she had a role in creating. The inaugural gown she designed for Mary Todd Lincoln is in the Smithsonian. (Some info, Norton Anthology of African American Literature)

2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Keckley

  1. I’ve been looking forward to learning more about Elizabeth Keckley. I know that she and Mary Todd Lincoln worked together for the Union victory and visited soldiers. She is also credited with telling an unflattering story on Mary Todd Lincoln. Perhaps you have heard it. Abraham and Mary were in the White House. Mary was throwing one of her yelling fits, acting quite crazy. Lincoln gazed out the window and pointed in the distance to the Washington, D.C. insane asylum. “Mother,” he said, calling Mary by his pet name for her. “Mother, settle down or we must send you there.”

    I’ve written several posts on the Lincolns on my blog, Lisa’s History Room. I invite you to visit and read about the Lincolns and other historical personages.

    All my best,
    Lisa Waller Rogers
    Lisa’s History Room

  2. I always thought that the most issue people had with Elizabeth Keckley’s book was her version of the events that surrounded the “Old Clothes Scandal.” Thanks, I’ll take a look!

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