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Elizabeth Keckley

Frontispiece of Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth KeckleyBorn a slave in Dinwiddie County, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818–1907) purchased her freedom in 1855 and supported herself as a seamstress, first in St. Louis and then in Washington, D.C. Her skills brought her to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln, who hired Keckley in 1861. She became Mary Lincoln's favorite dressmaker and later her personal companion, confidante, and traveling companion. It was a remarkable friendship between two very different women, but it ended with the publication of Keckley's memoir in 1868.

During her White House years, Keckley organized relief and educational programs for emancipated slaves with the help of Frederick Douglass. Her only son enlisted in the U.S. Army and was killed at the battle of Wilson's Creek, Missouri.

Keckley published her autobiography, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, three years after Lincoln's assassination. Although Keckley apparently thought her revealing book would help restore her former employer's reputation, it had the opposite effect, and Mrs. Lincoln felt betrayed by the woman she described as "my best living friend." The two women never spoke again, and Keckley's successful dressmaking business declined. She died in Washington in 1907 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.

This is part of our Take a Closer Look series. This regular feature offers a behind-the-scenes view of some of our hidden treasures in our library and what they reveal about our shared past.

Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley Enter Fullscreen More information
Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley
Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House was one of the first memoirs by a White House insider, and it is both a vivid slave narrative and an important source for Lincoln scholars. The press criticized Keckley for her intimate portrayal of the Lincoln family, especially for publishing numerous letters Mary had written to her. In a letter to her publisher, Keckley wondered if she was being denounced “because my skin is dark and I was once a slave?" Keckley may have used a ghostwriter, although not the name in the handwritten notation on the title page of this first edition. James Redpath, antislavery journalist, probably helped Keckley edit and publish her autobiography. (VHS call number: Rare Books E457.15 K26)
Elizabeth Keckley birth record Enter Fullscreen More information
Ann Powell Burwell commonplace book, 1746–1839
This Burwell family commonplace book includes recipes, household inventories, and lists of slaves owned by Col. Armistead Burwell of Dinwiddie County. Elizabeth Keckley's birth is recorded fourth from the bottom: "Lizzy– child of Aggy, Feby 1818." Aggy (Agnes) Hobbs was Elizabeth's mother. (VHS call number: Mss5:5 B9585:1)
Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe on Exhibition in New York, Harper's Weekly, October 26, 1867 Enter Fullscreen More information
Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe on Exhibition in New York, Harper's Weekly, October 26, 1867
After the assassination, Mary Lincoln fell into debt, and she arranged to sell some of her clothes and jewelry. She wrote and asked Keckley to accompany her to New York for the sale. The newspapers wrote scathing reports about the "vulgar" sale, illustrated here in this engraving from Harper's Weekly entitled "Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe on Exhibition in New York." The clothes did not sell, and Mrs. Lincoln returned to Chicago, but Keckley stayed in New York and began work on her autobiography. (VHS call number: AP2 H23 o.s.)
Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley
Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slav
Elizabeth Keckley birth record
Ann Powell Burwell commonplace book, 1746–
Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe on Exhibition in New York, Harper's Weekly, October 26, 1867
Mrs.

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