The three verified images of Elizabeth Keckley
Last Thursday I got on a plane for Miami, just missing the blizzard called Nemo. This long-planned trip brought me to South Beach to help babysit granddaughter Amalia while daughter Eleni was traveling to South Carolina to promote her newest book “Other Waters.”
On the same day I left Boston, Feb. 7, the New York Times on-line published an article I wrote for them about Elizabeth Keckley, the mulatto former slave who became the dressmaker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln. Here’s where you can see it:
The article, “Mrs. Keckley has Met with Great Success”, appeared in a section of The Times’ “Opinionator” section called “Disunion” which “follows the Civil War as it unfolded.” Appearing in this section inevitably brings a crowd of readers and many comments, some of them from experts in every detail of the Civil War (which I am not!)
I first discovered Elizabeth Keckley – an extraordinary woman who bought freedom from slavery for herself and her son with her skills at sewing—when, in 2007, 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”. Researching her story was a revelation to me—of what a woman born into slavery managed to achieve in the nineteenth century. I posted my first story about her in “A Rolling Crone on Sept 27, 2009.
A month later, in Oct. 23, 2009, I wrote a second post on Keckley, comparing the only three known images of her to the woman in the ambrotype I had bought. Here’s the post:
In the end I realized sadly that my image of “Elizabeth Keckley” was not authentic—there was too much disparity between the verified images of Keckley and the one I bought. But I didn’t mind that much, because buying the image had introduced me to such a fascinating person.
I read two books about Keckley’s life and I tried unsuccessfully to interest The New York Times in publishing an article about Keckley, but did not succeed. Then, a few months ago, the film “Lincoln” appeared and snapped up a lot of nominations for the Oscars. Evidently many who saw the film were intrigued by the character of Elizabeth Keckley, (portrayed by actress Gloria Reuben) in a relatively minor role, and they wanted to learn more about her.
I knew this was true because the number of hits on my old posts about Keckley suddenly soared as people began Googling her. I tried again to interest The Times in a piece about her and last Thursday it appeared in “Disunion.” (And yesterday’s Sunday Times Book Review contained a full-page ad for the new novel “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini, which is already number 11 on the Best Seller list.)
So far my essay in “Disunion” has received 34 comments—some critical, some favorable. The most common complaints claim that it’s inaccurate to say that Mary Todd Lincoln was institutionalized by her son Robert when she “descended into total madness”. He did commit her to an institution for fear that she would harm herself, but evidently she was not completely insane and was later released.
Another criticism that frequently pops up when I write about racial issues is that it’s wrong to call mulattoes like Elizabeth Keckley or apparently-white former slaves like her son George, “African American” or “black.” I completely understand and agree with this point, but as one Stephen D. Calhoun wrote after a comment from the always-irate A. Powell on my “Disunion” piece:
In 1858 the rules of the laws of Maryland classified all mulattoes as negroes. Within the rules and laws of that era, the classification is not anachronistic. It is accurate.
The comments I liked best were, of course, the many positive ones, especially this one from Ole Holsti in Salt Lake city, UT:
This entire series is wonderful, and this is one of the best. Many thanks!
Eventually, I’m told, The Times will publish a book including selected essays from the “Disunion” series, and I’m hoping that my piece on Elizabeth Keckley might be included. Meanwhile, I’m optimistic enough to hope that in future I can interest The Times’ editors in some other essays on my special area of interest: how the Abolitionists (as well as pro-slavery advocates) used the fairly new “science” of photography to create propaganda to promote their views. (Some essays I've already written on that subject for "A Rolling Crone" are listed at right under the heading "The Story Behind the Photograph".)