Friday, October 23, 2009

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


Cheryl said...


The photo that you purchased could be of Elizabeth Keckley (FYI, she signed her last name as Keckly). I'm reading the book "Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave" by Jennifer Fleischner, copyright 2003. When she was working in Washington, D.C., she was doing very well financially, so she could have had the earlier photo mounted in the expensive case.

Cheryl Morris

New View said...

Those are not the same people. Who the first woman is, I am not sure. But I am certain that that is not thing that doesn't change that drastically over time is the shape of the cheekbone. Still an awesome find and story.

Anonymous said...

If the picture you obtained is not Elizabeth Keckley, as stated as the previous comment states, could it be her mother Agnes? The ear rings are the same as those in the other illustrations.

Steve Peck said...

Have ever tried facial recognition to match the photo to known photos of Keckly at a later age? I am a commissioner for the Burwell School,
A historic site in Hillsborough, NC where Elizabeth ( Hobbs) Keckly spent six of her most formative years ( 1835-1841). Your photo is intriguing in many ways in that the clothes are of the 1850s when EK would have gained her freedom. I personally love the defiance of her gaze and believe it could be the earliest know photo of this remarkable American. Would appreciate a dialogue with you about this photo.

Steve Peck

Steve Peck said...

Have ever tried facial authentication to verify the identity of this person? I am a commissioner at the Burwell School in Hillsborough, NC . As commissioners we are tasked with preserving and researching our historic site. Elizabeth ( Hobbs ) Keckly spent 6 of her most formative years at Burwell School ( 1835-1841). Though enslaved She is by far the most interesting and famous person to have spent time at Burwell.

Your photo is intriguing in many ways because the clothing and time frame for photos of this type perfectly coincides with the age of EK in the 1850swhen she gained her freedom. I love the proud, perhaps defiant gaze of the woman. If this were Keckly it would be the earliest known photo. I would love submit this photo to analysis with your permission to get an opinion as to matches with know Keckly images.

Would appreciate any dialogue you can give me.


by Joan Gage said...

Steve, I wold love to discuss this with you. I have new information on my Keckley image and am starting to think it's actually her. But I need your email address so we can discuss this. Please email me at

Unknown said...

I have one very similar, i need heló.