Keckley, Elizabeth 1818-1907
KECKLEY, Elizabeth 1818-1907
PERSONAL: Born 1818, in VA; died of a stroke 1907, in Washington, DC; daughter of George (a slave) and Agnes (a slave) Hobbs; married James Keckley, 1852; children: (with Alexander Kirkland) George.
CAREER: Slave and servant, dressmaker. Bought her freedom, 1855; founder of school for black girls, Baltimore, MD; founder and president, Black Contraband Relief Association; Wilberforce University, Xenia, OH, sewing and domestic arts instructor, 1892-98, representative at Columbian World's Exhibition, 1893; cofounder, Home for Destitute Women and Children, Washington, DC.
Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (memoir), G. W. Carleton (New York, NY), 1868, Stansil and Lee (Buffalo, NY), c. 1931, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2001.
ADAPTATIONS: Sound recording of Behind the Scenes (two cassettes), read by Ameria Jones, Masterbuy Audiobooks (New York, NY), 1996.
SIDELIGHTS: Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave but spent half of her life as a free woman, during which time she was the dressmaker and confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Her autobiography, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, is a fascinating account of her life and has been reprinted several times since its original publication.
Keckley was born to George and Agnes Hobbs, slaves owned by different masters. Keckley saw her father infrequently and not at all after the age of seven or eight, when his master moved the family. Keckley's owner gave her to his son and daughter-in-law as a wedding present when she was seventeen. She was then repeatedly sexually abused over a four-year period by a neighbor, Alexander Kirkland, and conceived and bore her only son, George, by this man.
In the first three chapters of Behind the Scenes, Keckley offers her slave narrative, describing the brutality she endured, including her first beating as a four year old. She tells of an uncle so terrified of his master that he committed suicide rather than submit to his punishment. She tells of the beating she received from a schoolmaster when she was eighteen: how he ripped her dress from her body and whipped her with rawhide.
Keckley took her son George to St. Louis, where she married James Keckley in 1852, but she soon discovered her husband was not the free man he had claimed to be; he was, in fact, an alcoholic who was unable to support her. Keckley's master had promised her that she could be freed after his death, but when he passed away she did not have the money to secure that freedom. Her mother had taught her to be a skilled seamstress, and she now used her talents to earn the money to support herself and her son. The women for whom she worked generously lent her the $1,200 to buy freedom for herself and George, money that she later repaid.
As a free woman, Keckley moved to Baltimore in 1860, and founded a school for young black girls, where she taught them the social graces and passed on her talent as a seamstress. Sylvia D. Hoffert noted in Journal of Women's History that from the time Keckley arrived there, "the limits that race placed on her freedom became obvious. Before the Civil War, Maryland had the largest free black population in the country, and Baltimore was home to a thriving black community. But a vast array of laws restricted the choices free blacks could make. Those who refused to work for whites, for example, could be bound to service or sold into slavery. Black children could be forcibly apprenticed. Free blacks could not own dogs or guns without a license, and opportunities to engage in trade were severely limited."
Keckley stayed in Baltimore only long enough to save money to move to Washington, D.C., where she established herself with distinguished clients, including her first customer, Varina Howell Davis, wife of then Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, later to become president of the Confederacy. Keckley also sewed for the wife of Stephen Douglass, and, most notably, for Mary Todd Lincoln.
In the second part of her autobiography, Keckley describes her life as a free woman, a businesswoman, and the confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln. "To describe her life as a free woman," Hoffert commented,"Keckley pragmatically adopted a frame of reference for judging what constituted economic success, social respectability, and historical significance that was familiar to her white readers." Keckley understood both white Northerners, who looked for reassurance that slavery had been both immoral and disruptive to social harmony and economic growth, as well as white Southerners, who still felt blacks to be inferior to whites and continued to think of them as servants.
Keckley wrote little in the second half of her memoir about her life in the black community—of her church participation and the women she was able to employ in constructing the elaborate costumes ordered by her clients. Hoffert noted that she "wanted to reassure her white readers that she was connected to them. Thus, in her autobiography, her post-emancipation identity is intertwined with and dependent upon her contribution to the lives of whites and her knowledge of their affairs, values, and anxieties. … Butshe also used her position of social intimacy with them to assert her authority as a reliable historical witness and her knowledge of the Lincolns' domestic and financial affairs to justify her right to judge and interpret their actions."
Behind the Scenes was the first book to describe life in the White House. Keckley presents an intimate portrait of the president and of his grief and suffering with the death of the Lincolns' son Willie. She writes of their joy and the end of the Civil War, but also notes the death threats Lincoln had been receiving for years. Lincoln had dismissed them, but his wife was always fearful, said Keckley, reading "impending danger in every rustling leaf, in every whisper of the wind." When Lincoln was assassinated, Keckley was the person Mary Todd Lincoln wanted by her side, according to the memoir, and Keckley later helped her friend sell her fine clothing to raise money during times of financial crisis. The two women remained close for several years, visiting and exchanging letters, but with the publication of Behind the Scenes, their friendship cooled. Adele Logan Alexander wrote in American Visions that "not only Mary Todd Lincoln herself, but many other Americans, both black and white alike, thought that Keckley's intimate disclosures dishonored their fallen hero." Robert Lincoln, the late president's oldest son, successfully campaigned to have the book removed from publication.
Carolyn Sorisio raised the question of why Keckley was so severely attacked by the public and the media. "Certainly," said Sorisio, "the censure was not the result of the public's excessive love for Abraham Lincoln's grieving widow. By the time the book was published, Mary Todd Lincoln was considered by many to be extravagant and improper in her dress, manner, and actions. Nor can we argue that Keckley's public discussion of Lincoln was unprecedented. As Keckley notes in her Preface, Lincoln had already 'forced herself into notoriety' by stepping 'beyond the formal lines which hedge about a private life, and invited public criticism.'"
Keckley's business slowed after the publication of the book, and she moved to Ohio, where she taught sewing and directed the school's domestic arts department at historically black Wilberforce University. She also represented the school at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She returned to Washington in 1898 to live in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, a shelter she had helped establish. She lived on the $12 a month she received as the survivor of her son, who was killed while serving in the Union Army, and she died of a stroke at the age of eighty-eight.
Alexander concluded by saying that "privately influential in a White House torn by the tragedies of Civil War and personal grief, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley may not have wielded power over policy, but her access to and revelations about one of our most scrutinized first families have never been equaled by any other African American."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Keckley, Elizabeth, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, Stansil and Lee (Buffalo, NY), c. 1931, reprinted, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2001.
Rutberg, Becky, Mary Lincoln's Dressmaker: Elizabeth Keckley's Remarkable Rise from Slave to White House Confidante, Walker and Co. (New York, NY), 1995.
African American Review, spring, 2000, Carolyn Sorisio, "Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath," p. 19.
American Transcendental Quarterly, June, 1999, Michael Berthold, "Not 'Altogether' the 'History of Myself': Autobiographical Impersonality in Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House," p. 105.
American Visions, February-March, 1995, Adele Logan Alexander, "White House Confidante of Mrs. Lincoln," p. 18.
Black American Literature Forum, spring, 1989, William L. Andrews, "Reunion in the Postbellum Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley," p. 5.
Journal of Women's History, autumn, 2001, Sylvia D. Hoffert, "Jane Grey Swisshelm, Elizabeth Keckley, and the Significance of Race Consciousness in American Women's History," p. 8.
Library Journal, February 15, 1997, Denise A. Garofalo, review of Behind the Scenes (audio version), p. 174.
Voices from the Gaps,http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (July 12, 2002).*