Sunday, September 27, 2009

FIRST BLACK WOMAN IN THE WHITE HOUSE -- ELIZABETH KECKLEY






(This is the first of an occasional “Crone of the Week”-- women whose stories I want to tell. I’d appreciate your suggestions of women in history who accomplished something courageous, significant or even outrageous during their cronehood years and deserve to be featured on A Rolling Crone. You can e-mail me at joanpgage@yahoo.com)

Born a slave in Virginia in 1818, Elizabeth Keckley (also spelled Keckly) became—not the first black woman to work in the White House—there were surely some employed as workers and servants before her- but she was the first black woman to have so much influence on and access to the President’s family that she became the first person ever to write a back-stairs book, revealing the inner workings of Abraham Lincoln’s domestic life. Keckley was the only person who could calm Mary Todd Lincoln when she would suffer a nervous crisis before an important event. After the inauguration, Mrs. Lincoln insisted all her gowns be made by Keckley. (One of them is pictured above.) She turned to the former slave for help and advice on domestic details and protocol for White House parties. Elizabeth traded jokes and compliments with the president, who teased his wife about her penchant for low necklines and said to Mary, when he saw the first Keckley-made gown, “I declare, you look charming in that dress. Mrs. Keckley has met with great success.” Elizabeth also served the Lincolns as a baby sitter when the boys were ill, and nursed the first lady when she was suffering one of her crippling headaches.

Elizabeth was born to a slave named Agnes, owned by Armistead and Mary Burwell in Dinwiddie, VA. “Aggy” had been taught to read (which was illegal) and she taught Elizabeth to read and to sew, and they both worked as house slaves to the Burwell children. On Aggy’s death bed she revealed to her daughter that their master, Armistead Burwell, was also Elizabeth’s father.

After Burwell died, Elizabeth was loaned to other owners who beat her, although she defied them and refused to cry out. She was eventually raped by a white man, and gave birth to her only child, George. Since Elizabeth was mixed race and her rapist was white, George was so light that he claimed he was white in order to serve in the Union Army. He was killed in action in 1861.

Through a combination of business acumen, sewing skills and intelligence, Elizabeth eventually managed to buy freedom for her son and herself, and moved to Washington D.C. where she became the most favored modiste to the likes of Mrs. Robert E. Lee. Another socialite introduced her to Mary Todd Lincoln, who had just arrived in Washington and was very insecure about the city’s fashion sophistication and social mores.

Elizabeth then became the exclusive dressmaker for the new first lady, as well as her best friend and confidant. She would dress and calm Mary before every event, fixing her hair, accessories and jewels. As she prepared the first lady, Elizabeth would chat with the president and received many compliments from him for her skills. When Lincoln was assassinated, the first person Mary Todd Lincoln called to be with her was Elizabeth Keckley.

When Mrs. Lincoln moved back to Illinois after the assassination, she insisted that Elizabeth travel with her. Keckley returned to her profitable dressmaking business in Washington, and the widow wrote her many letters. Finally, Mrs. Lincoln, convinced 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 of the Lincolns to raise funds. Word got out about what Mary Lincoln was doing, and she felt disgraced by the news reports. Elizabeth Keckley then wrote what was the first backstairs-at-the-White-House tell-all, called, “Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House”. In the back of the book was an appendix with 24 letters that Mrs. Lincoln had written to Elizabeth, including the statement that she considered her “my best living friend.” The book was denounced by everyone from Lincoln’s son Robert to the New York Times as “backstairs gossip” that desecrated the memory of President Lincoln, although Mrs. Keckley kept trying to explain that she only meant to defend Mrs. Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln felt betrayed and their friendship ended. Eventually, when the former first lady descended into total madness, her son had her institutionalized.

Meanwhile Elizabeth 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, which her son had attended. She organized a dress exhibit at the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and, in her 80’s, she 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 during the war to help freed slaves. Until her death, Elizabeth had a photograph of Mrs. Lincoln on her wall. She died in 1907 at the age of 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 when the graves were moved to a new cemetery, her unclaimed remains were placed in an unmarked grave.

I learned about Elizabeth Keckley when I bought, on E-Bay, a cased ambrotype portrait of a mixed-race woman. Pinned to the velvet lining was a scrap of paper with the words “Elizabeth Keckley, Formerly a Slave”. Many of my favorite crones were introduced to me through antique photographs that I’ve bought and then researched, to find out their “back story.” In my next post I’m going to show you some portraits of Keckley and ask you to be a detective and help me find out if my E-Bay image of Elizabeth is authentic.

7 comments:

Heidi W. Durrow said...

Thank you for helping share this lost story of a dynamic woman!

ann said...

you have to write a book about these forgotten women in history!

Joan Gage said...

Please note--a touring drama company is presenting a play based on the life of Elizabeth Keckley and they created the composite above of her signature and two photos from her life. Learn more about them at

http://www.ehsco.org/performances/keckly/

AD Powell said...

Elizabeth Keckley was a mulatto. Her son George was white, former slave or not:

http://www.angelfire.com/journal2/yardy2001/white_women_as_slaves.htm

http://open.salon.com/blog/mischling/2010/07/28/white_slaves_in_the_antebellum_south

To call either one of them "African American" is anachronistic and perpetuates the myth that the legal disability of slave status constituted membership in an ethnic or racial group.

Anonymous said...

Back in the day, a drop of black blood made you black. We may not like to admit it today but that was the way it was (and in some places, still is). Those who could pass for white lived in fear of being discovered. So just because you looked white didn't mean you would continue to be accepted and embraced by those around you who where white if the truth came out.

Anonymous said...

According to Wikipedia "The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States for the social classification as Negro of individuals with ANY African ancestry." As much as it may offend some that the blogger calls either Mrs. Keckley and her son black or African American doesn't change the fact that in that society and probably today, they were identified as black by others, they identified themselves as black. To try and pretend otherwise is to lie to oneself. If a person was able to "pass" as white, they certainly didn't not go about telling the white community that my great, great, whatever was a black person. Those linkages where kept hidden.

Anonymous said...

According to Wikipedia "The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States for the social classification as Negro of individuals with ANY African ancestry." As much as it may offend some that the blogger calls either Mrs. Keckley and her son black or African American doesn't change the fact that in that society and probably today, they were identified as black by others, they identified themselves as black. To try and pretend otherwise is to lie to oneself. If a person was able to "pass" as white, they certainly didn't not go about telling the white community that my great, great, whatever was a black person. Those linkages where kept hidden.