Story behind the Photo: Elizabeth Keckley— First Black Woman in the White House
On Sept. 27, I posted the story of Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a mixed-race slave in 1818 in a Virginia. (Her father was the owner of herself and her mother). She went on to be raped by a white man and have a son who was 3/4 white, buy her own and her son’s freedom through her sewing skills, move to Washington D.C. to become the leading society dressmaker, and she made the inauguration gown and every subsequent dress of the new First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.
She became the only one who could calm Mrs. Lincoln before a party, dressed her,and chose her accessories. Ultimately Elizabeth became her close friend and companion. After the president’s assassination, Keckley was the first person Mrs. Lincoln asked for. When the widow moved back to Chicago, they had a long correspondence and ultimately Elizabeth Keckley, who had founded several philanthropies to helped former slaves, wrote a book called “Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.”
This caused such a scandal that Elizabeth Keckley was abandoned by her white customers, and, despite working as a professor of “Sewing and Domestic Science Arts” at Wilberforce University into her 80’s, she died at the age of 89 in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, which she had helped establish. Her son, who passed as white in order to serve in the Union Army, was killed in action in 1861.
I had never heard of this remarkable woman when I bought a 1/6 plate ruby glass ambrotype in a gold-embellished thermoplastic case from a seller on E-Bay in 2007. He evidently had never heard of her either, because he added later in the auction: “I have had several e-mails with the observation that a person with the name “Elizabeth Keckley” was a 19th century American author and could have had some connection with the Federal government and White House during the American Civil War.”
As he said in the original description, a paper note is pinned to the velvet lining of the cover with the words “Elizabeth Keckley, formerly a Slave”.
I collect antique photographs having to do with slavery and black Americana, so I bought this one, winning the auction with a price of $227.50. If the seller had mentioned a Lincoln connection the ambrotype, it would have gone for much more. I’ve seen a carte de visite photograph of Lincoln’s dog, Fido, go for several thousand dollars.
When I received the ambrotype and researched it, I was thrilled—mainly to learn about this extraordinary woman who achieved so much during the Civil War era. But I’m not at all sure that the mixed-race black woman in the ambrotype is really Elizabeth Keckley. (The seller may have refrained from mentioning Lincoln so he couldn’t be accused of misrepresenting the image, or he could just have been ill-informed.)
I am posting the only three published images of Elizabeth Keckley that I could find in the collage at the bottom--from youngest to oldest. “My” image, at the top, would be an even younger version of her, or it could be someone else entirely. There are similarities, certainly, including the earrings. The nice thermoplastic Union Case housing the image would have cost the sitter more than the common embossed leather cases. The woman in the ambrotype is richly and fashionably dressed and clearly mixed race. Is it Elizabeth Keckley?
What do you think? Let me know at email@example.com
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.