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March 13th, 2013

Just who was the Lincolns’ friend, Elizabeth Keckley?

Lillie Howard

Being that the recent movie about President Lincoln was so widely embraced, I felt that the African American lady who was so closely connected to the President and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln would be an interesting subject to write about for Women’s History Month.

During her lifetime of eighty years, Elizabeth Keckley actually lived three lives, each sharply different from the others. First she was a slave for thirty years, suffering the floggings and other physical and mental harassment that were the lot of the slave. Then, almost as if by magic, the woman who had been a slave became Washington’s stylish modiste, serving the highest of official society and eventually becoming the seamstress and intimate friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, the nation’s high-strung First Lady. Indeed, some said that Elizabeth Keckley was the only real friend Mrs. Lincoln had in Washington. Her third life began when the Lincoln association ended. It was essentially a long period of twilight memories, from 1870 until her death in 1905. During most of this period, Keckley used her skills as a modiste and seamstress in teaching and directing the domestic arts program at Wilberforce University.

The details of her first two lives are recounted in her autobiography, "Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House", a well-written interior account of slavery that also provides some perceptive insights into both the Lincoln family and Washington during the war years.

The principal interest of ‘Behind the Scenes’ is its rather detailed account of life with the Lincolns. This has proven to be of great value to historians and Lincoln specialists. But Keckley’s description of her life as a slave, although related with a certain amount of reserve and reticence, is of interest also. The reader senses the hopeless monotony of a slave’s existence, including the floggings, the tension, the conflict, the endless concern for the trivial proprieties and insipid amenities of the master-slave relationship. One also senses how quickly a slave’s life could suffer radical alteration at a master’s whim or some change in family fortunes. It was thus that, as a young woman, Keckley - then just "Lizzie" - was moved out of a warm family relationship in Virginia to a rather complicated situation in St. Louis, Missouri.

Of particular interest was Keckley’s stay in Hillsboro, North Carolina, where she not only suffered a brutal and forcible rape, which was the usual lot of a female slave, but something else even more sinister in the catalogue of slavery’s evils. For several months, a young Christian minister flogged her every Saturday because he thought it his Christian duty to induce her a demeanor more fitting for a slave. Such a perversion of Christian principles provides an interesting footnote on the psychology of the depravity of human slavery.

After Keckley moved into the White House in 1860, her life style changed. To President Lincoln, she became "Madame Elizabeth". The flogging scars on her back were hidden from view by her stylish clothing, and all that Washington saw was a distinguished and graceful woman of great charm and social tact. As she recounts so well, one needed great social tact to be the friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. Indeed, much of this part of ‘Behind the Scenes’ almost amounts to an extended psychograph of America’s most puzzling First Lady, particularly the long account of Mrs. Lincoln’s pathetic attempt to sell her clothes and jewelry following her husband’s tragic death.

During her White House years, Keckley labored on behalf of the Union war effort. Of particular concern to her was the pitiable plight of the ex-slaves or Contrabands who flocked into the capital city. So, in early 1862, she became the founder and president of the Contraband Relief Association and traveled to New York and Boston to raise funds for this organization. She made the utmost sacrifice to the war effort when her only son, George Keckley, was killed in action as a Union soldier in Missouri.

To me, Elizabeth Keckley’s life story would make a very interesting movie due to her close association to the Lincolns. Anyone interested in finding out more about her life should read her autobiography, "Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House". I know that I’m going to search for it.

This information was obtained from "Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology" by Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon.

Thanks goes out to my son, William, for leaving this book with me. After thirty years I’m finally seriously reading it. Wow! Better late than never! This is Lillie’s Point of View!

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