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It’s tempting to describe Elizabeth Keckley’s life as a rags-to-riches-to-rags tale, but to do so diminishes the extraordinary obstacles she faced. Born enslaved in Virginia 200 years ago this February, Keckley’s talents in dressmaking earned her enough money to buy freedom for herself and her son. As a free woman of color, she moved to Washington, D.C., advocated for the formerly enslaved, and started a clothing business that won her the patronage of then-first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. The two women became close friends, but Keckley’s memoir sparked a scandal that severed their relationship and damaged her reputation.
For years, scholars relegated Keckley (also spelled Keckly) to the footnotes of history — one even questioned if she’d existed — but interest in the dressmaker has spiked over the past decade. She’s materialized in plays, fiction, nonfiction, and the 2012 biopic Lincoln. Now, during the bicentennial of Keckley’s birth, actress Gloria Reuben is developing a project about her, and Oxford University Press has for the first time reprinted a 1942 book, They Knew Lincoln, that fleshes out her life. The new takes on Keckley suggest that she was unfairly vilified for her memoir and didn’t get the credit she deserved for her contributions to fashion and history alike.
When Reuben got the call to read for the role of Keckley in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, she had just 36 hours to prepare, a daunting task since she knew almost nothing about the dressmaker. That soon changed.
“When I got the amazing news that I...was so lucky and blessed to garner the role, I read everything there was to read [about Keckley], including, of course, her autobiography,” Reuben recalls.
Keckley’s 1868 memoir — Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House — chronicles the gruesome realities of Keckley’s life in bondage. She was the biracial child of Agnes “Aggy” Hobbs and slaveholder Armistead Burwell. Beginning in childhood, Keckley endured beatings and, later, rapes, one of which led to her pregnancy with son George.
“He came into the world through no will of mine, and yet, God only knows how I loved him,” Keckley says in her memoir.
After her enslavement in Virginia and North Carolina, Keckley and her child ended up with a new slaveholder, Hugh A. Garland, who moved them and his family to St. Louis. Because Garland struggled to support his household, Keckley worked as a seamstress and dressmaker to provide for the family.
“Definitely when she moved to St. Louis, she really becomes well known,” says Elizabeth Way, assistant curator at The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). “She’s still enslaved but well respected in the city as a dressmaker. People are seeing the clothing she’s making, and she’s really quite famous.”
As a child, Keckley learned dressmaking from her mother, and she excelled in this work by her teens. Later, a marriage proposal from James Keckley prompted the dressmaker to use her craft, and loans from patrons, to raise enough money to buy freedom for herself and her son, as she did not want to wed while enslaved. In 1855, Keckley purchased her freedom from Garland for a hefty $1,200, equivalent to nearly $33,000 today. When her marriage crumbled, she and George moved to Washington, D.C., where, in 1860, she opened a dressmaking business.
Way says the connections she formed with upper-class women in St. Louis helped her attract customers in D.C. But in the nation’s capital, the gifted dressmaker initially took on unglamourous tasks.
“She started off as a seamstress, doing plain sewing, much simpler work,” Way says. Before long, customers began to spread Keckley’s name around, and Robert E. Lee’s brother Sydney Smith Lee commissioned her to make a dress for his wife. The dress was Keckley’s “calling card,” Way says. Not long afterward, Keckley met Mary Todd Lincoln following President Abraham Lincoln’s March 4th, 1861, inauguration. The encounter changed her life.
Keckley’s “fortitude, courage, belief in herself, and faith in the divine” has inspired Reuben, the actress says. “Buying your own freedom and moving from to St. Louis to Washington, D.C., that... is dazzling.”
Before Lincoln began filming in 2011, Reuben took a road trip to visit the places Keckley lived, including the Washington building where she resided and ran her business.
“That brownstone is still standing, by the grace of God,” she says.
Reuben contacted the current owners and let them know the history. They plan to rename it the Keckley building, she says. Meanwhile, the actress intends to turn her Keckley research into either a one-woman show or television movie. She’s not ready to announce a timeframe for the project.
“If I had my way, this will come to fruition on film, stage, or both,” Reuben says. “She was extraordinary.”
Mary Todd Lincoln found Keckley impressive as well. Lincoln interviewed a number of women to be her modiste and personal dresser, but Keckley edged them out. While the dressmaker already had fans among the political elite, including Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, the first lady exposed Keckley’s talents to the nation. In 1862, for example, Lincoln sat for photos and portraits in a Keckley creation. The dressmaker was thrilled to land her as a client.
“Ever since arriving in Washington, I had a great desire to work for the ladies of the White House, and to accomplish this end I was ready to make almost any sacrifice consistent with propriety,” Keckley wrote in her autobiography.
She first tailored and altered a rose-colored moire-antique dress for Lincoln that the first lady accessorized with a pearl necklace, earrings, and bracelets, along with red roses in her hair. President Lincoln approved of Keckley’s work, saying his wife looked “charming” in it.
During the spring and early summer, Keckley made as many as 16 dresses for Mary Lincoln. Today, few Keckley creations remain. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a plush purple ensemble the designer is believed to have made for Lincoln. The outfit includes a velvet skirt and daytime and evening bodices. The pieces feature satin piping, and mother-of pearl buttons adorn the daytime bodice. Keckley is also believed to have made a quilt, now at the Kent State University Museum, from scraps of dresses she created for Lincoln.
Keckley’s dresses stood out because of how well they fit the wearers. Way says the mid and late 1800s marked a revolution of sorts for the apparel industry. Women could buy garments from stores, but they also enjoyed custom-made pieces. Some of Keckley’s dresses have a streamlined look that challenged the Victorian style of the period.
“The purple velvet dress is quite stark,” Way says. “She made other things that were more decorative. A lot of dressmaking in general was the taste of the client, where you’re making this made to measure, and there’s a lot of discussion about the details.”
As first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln’s wardrobe had significance beyond her personal preferences. According to the Smithsonian, the onset of the Civil War meant the first lady and members of Lincoln’s administration needed to look especially competent. Sophisticated apparel also erased some of the doubts Easterners had about the Lincolns. They considered the Kentucky-born couple uncouth. At the same time, the pair could not risk appearing extravagant in dress when so many Americans were suffering. But Mary Todd Lincoln did face such criticism and bad press generally.
Jennifer Chiaverini, author of the 2013 novel Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, says that accounts of Lincoln varied wildly depending on the source.
“Some are very kind and compliment her intelligence and her political savvy,” Chiaverini says. “In other accounts, she’s barely recognizable as a human person as opposed to a caricature. She did have a difficult time in Washington, D.C. She came from a Southern slave-owning family. She had family who fought in the Confederacy, but she herself was a staunch Unionist. On the other hand, people of the South saw her as a traitor.”
Lincoln’s notorious temper has been widely chronicled, leading to speculation that she may have had a mood or personality disorder. But Chiaverini, whose latest book is Enchantress of Numbers, calls it unwise to stamp a diagnosis on a historical figure. The novelist also points out how much grief Lincoln suffered. She lost three children and, of course, her husband — without the benefit of psychotherapy.
Willie Lincoln, 11, died from typhoid fever in 1862 shortly after Keckley’s son, George, died fighting in the Civil War. The grief both mothers felt brought them together. And Keckley had a set of personality traits that helped her tolerate Mary Todd Lincoln’s emotional frailty, according to Chiaverini.
“Elizabeth Keckley was known for her compassion, intelligence, her poise, her grace,” she says. “She was uniquely equipped to deal with someone like Mary, who did have a temper, who did have emotional outbursts. Elizabeth Keckley understood better than any of her critics what Mary was dealing with, what it was like to be mistreated by the North and South, the constant worry of death threats upon her husband, the strain of being first lady.”
Spending the bulk of her life enslaved likely conditioned Keckley to stay composed in the face of instability and cruelty. She noted in her memoir how her former slaveholder expected his captives to smile, no matter the circumstance. But Keckley’s compassion extended far beyond the emotional needs of the powerful whites in her life. In 1862, she founded the Contraband Relief Association, which provided clothes, food, and shelter for new freedmen and women and ailing soldiers. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke on behalf of the organization. Additionally, Keckley taught girls and women of color how to sew, so they could have marketable skills.
After President Lincoln’s assassination, she grew closer to the first lady, traveling with her to Illinois for a few weeks. Eventually, Keckley had to return to Washington to see to her dressmaking business. But she and Mary Todd Lincoln frequently exchanged letters. When the deeply in debt first lady asked Keckley to help her discreetly sell the grand gowns she’d no longer need outside of the White House, the dressmaker assisted her. In the age of Poshmark, Tradesy, and ThredUp, it’s difficult to believe that selling used clothes could be cause for scandal. In the Victorian era, however, people with financial problems were expected to keep their difficulties private. Lincoln was scandalized in 1867 after the press discovered she’d sold her old wardrobe.
“This was a period when reputation and respectability mattered a lot more and in different ways than it does now,” says Kate Masur, a Northwestern University history professor who wrote the introduction for the They Knew Lincoln reissue. “For the grieving widow of a beloved president, the first president to be assassinated, to be in just desperate straits and for her situation to become public — it looked... really bad.”
Keckley tried to rehab Lincoln’s image through her memoir, in which she shared her impressions of the first lady and the president. She also highlighted the tragedies the couple suffered, such as the loss of little Willie Lincoln. Since the memoir included letters Mary Todd Lincoln had written to Keckley, the public largely viewed the book as intrusive. Keckley later said that she didn’t know those letters would be published. Today, historians consider the book a valuable source of information on the Lincolns.
“The book is multifaceted,” Masur says. “Keckley describes her life in slavery and in the White House with the Lincolns. She tells of her activist work in D.C. with the Contraband Relief Association. She was a highly respected woman. A lot of what she says is verifiable through other sources, so you don’t have to just take her word for it.”
Although Keckley’s memoir has proven valuable to scholars, it did not sell well. The press painted the dressmaker as a servant who’d betrayed her employers, and the fact that she was a woman of color only made the backlash against her more vitriolic.
“A lot of the criticism against Keckley had classist, racist, and sexist overtones,” Chiaverini says. “It was just, ‘Elizabeth Keckley, a woman of color, an employee, had dared to speak about the white president and his wife.’ ... You wouldn’t even know she was a really very successful businesswoman. They weren’t interested in offering a fair portrayal.”
Upset about the book, Mary Todd Lincoln cut Keckley out of her life. Losing her relationship with the first lady was not the only hit Keckley took for Behind the Scenes. The money from her dressmaking business dried up, but a pension from her late son helped her survive. In 1907, she died at the Home for Destitute Women and Children, an organization she’d helped start.
Keckley’s death did not stop the attacks on her reputation. In 1935, journalist and historical researcher David Rankin Barbee not only claimed that Keckley did not write her book, but that she’d never existed. This led a number of African Americans who’d known the dressmaker to step forward and prompted John E. Washington to write They Knew Lincoln, featuring Keckley and other people of color familiar with the 16th president. It was a bestseller.
“John E. Washington was born in 1880. He was a high school teacher in Washington, D.C., and a Lincoln collector,” Masur says. “His book was a really interesting, unique window into the Lincolns and their world.”
In the reissued book’s introduction, Masur describes They Knew Lincoln as “part argument for the historical significance of common people” and the first book to focus on the president’s African-American connections. Washington has been described as Keckley’s most fervent defender. He portrayed her as elegant, intelligent, and dignified.
About 90 years after Keckley began making dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln, another black dressmaker, Ann Lowe, would make history for her ties to a prominent political family. Lowe designed Jackie Kennedy’s 1953 wedding dress. Way says these women exemplify the African-American influence on US fashion. Both learned dressmaking from enslaved women — Keckley from her mother and Lowe from her grandmother — Way notes.
As scholars have come to recognize the important contributions marginalized people have made to history, women of color like Lowe and Keckley are receiving praise for their work.
“People are becoming more aware of how essential it is to tell and to hear stories about women and people of color and the roles they played in American history, instead of just focusing on the white men of a privileged class,” she says. “Of course, their stories are important too, but there is this whole, rich, enormous percentage of American history that does not come from this perspective, and it’s equally valid. We need to learn about the people that have been too long neglected.”