By JOAN PAULSON GAGE
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has cast a spotlight on a remarkable African-American woman who played a key role in influencing the president’s views on emancipation, bought her way out of slavery and fought to improve the lot of her people. And yet, when heroes of the Civil War era and the anti-slavery movement are celebrated, Elizabeth Keckley (portrayed in “Lincoln” by the actress Gloria Reuben) has been generally overlooked.
Until now. A play called “Mary T. & Lizzy K.,” by Tazewell Thompson, which examines the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and the dressmaker who became her confidante and closest friend, will open in March at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington. (Keckley was also an important character in Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas,” which recently closed at New York Theater Workshop.) And Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” was published in January. All that in addition to her significant if less central appearance in the Spielberg film.
And no wonder. The little-known details of Elizabeth Keckley’s life provide enough drama, tragedy and irony to inspire a mini-series — all of it true and a testament to one woman’s courage. Born in 1818 to a slave named Agnes, Elizabeth was owned by Armistead and Mary Burwell in Dinwiddie, Va. “Aggy” had been taught to read (which was illegal), and she taught her daughter to read and to sew as well. They both worked as house slaves to the Burwell children. (Elizabeth recalled a beating when she was only 5, for rocking a Burwell baby too hard.) On Aggy’s deathbed she revealed to her daughter that their master, Armistead Burwell, was Elizabeth’s father.
In 1832, at age 14, Elizabeth was sent to live with the newly married Burwell son (and her half-brother) Robert, whose wife ordered a neighbor, William J. Bingham, to beat the young slave until she was broken of her “stubborn pride.” But as Elizabeth wrote later, she resolved never to cry under the lash. She kept her vow and on the third attempt to “break her” Bingham burst into tears and said it would be a sin to beat her any more. Another white neighbor, Alexander Kirkland, raped Elizabeth, and in 1839 she bore a son, her only child, whom she named George.
It was in St. Louis that Elizabeth met and eventually married James Keckley, who told her he was a free man. She soon learned he was not, and his habitual drunkenness convinced her to leave the marriage eight years later.
Elizabeth and her son moved to Washington, D.C., where she became the most favored modiste to the likes of Mrs. Robert E. Lee and Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Another socialite introduced her to the new first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, who had just arrived in Washington and was insecure about the city’s fashion sophistication and social mores.
Elizabeth became the exclusive dressmaker for Mrs. Lincoln. Every day she would dress the first lady, fixing her hair, accessories and jewelry. When Lincoln saw his wife in her first Keckley-made gown, he said: “I declare, you look charming in that dress. Mrs. Keckley has met with great success.”
Elizabeth also served the Lincolns as a baby sitter for the boys and nursed the first lady when she was suffering one of her crippling headaches. According to a White House employee, Rosetta Wells, Keckley was “the only person in Washington who could get along with Mrs. Lincoln.”
In April of 1861, 12 days after the south attacked Fort Sumter and President Lincoln called for volunteer soldiers, Elizabeth’s son George left Wilberforce University, where he was a freshman, and enlisted in the First Missouri Volunteers. It was then illegal for blacks to enlist, but George, who was three quarters white, had no problem passing as a white man. Four months later, on Aug. 10, he was killed in action at the Battle of Lexington. While still mourning the death of her own son, Elizabeth helped care for Willy Lincoln, who died of typhoid in February 1862, at age 11.
In 1862, with funds donated by the Lincolns and other important patrons, Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association, which in 1864 changed its name to the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldiers’ Relief Association. She wrote that the road to freedom was “rugged and full of thorns” and proposed that “a society of colored people be formed to labor for the benefit of the unfortunate freedmen.”
When Lincoln was assassinated, the first person Mary Todd Lincoln called for was Elizabeth Keckley. Later Mrs. Lincoln gave Keckley her own bloodstained cloak and bonnet from that fateful night. The widowed first lady moved back to Illinois after the assassination and insisted that Elizabeth travel with her. Keckley returned to her profitable dressmaking business in Washington, and Mary Lincoln wrote her many letters, begging her to move to Chicago.
Finally Mrs. Lincoln, convinced that she was running out of money, told Keckley to meet her in New York City where, using assumed names, they tried to sell possessions and clothing to raise funds. Word got out about what Mary Lincoln was doing, and she felt disgraced by the news reports.
Keckley then wrote what was the first backstairs-at-the-White House tell-all, “Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.” In an appendix were 24 letters that Mrs. Lincoln had written to Keckley, including the statement that she considered her “my best living friend.” The book was denounced by everyone, including Lincoln’s son Robert, as “backstairs gossip” that desecrated the memory of President Lincoln. Keckley kept trying to explain, to no avail, that she meant only to defend the first lady. Mary Lincoln felt betrayed, and their friendship ended. (Eventually, the former first lady descended into total madness, and Robert had her institutionalized.)
Meanwhile, Keckley continued to earn money by sewing — although most of her white clients had abandoned her. In 1892, when she was 74, she moved to Ohio to become head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. She organized a dress exhibit at the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and, in her 80s, returned to Washington to live in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children — which had been established in part by the Contraband Relief Association that Keckley founded to help freed slaves.
Society had turned on Keckley, but she remained unbroken and free of bitterness. Until her death, she had a photograph of Mrs. Lincoln on her wall. She died in 1907 at age 89 and was buried in Harmony Cemetery in Washington. She had been careful to pay far in advance for a plot and a stone, but in the final irony of a life filled with ironies, the graves were moved to a new cemetery, and her unclaimed remains were placed in an unmarked grave and lost to history.
But while Elizabeth Keckley’s bones were lost, more than a century after her death, her courage, activism and concern for her fellow slaves has been rediscovered — a reminder that presidents aren’t the only people capable of leaving impressive legacies.
Keckley's autobiography, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, is in the public domain and can be read or downloaded for free.
The play Mary T. and Lizzie K. will run from March 15-April 28 at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, DC.
And finally, there are some articles about her son George Kirkland's military service here and here at The Sable Arm.