Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley
A former Virginia slave who used her skills as a seamstress to buy her way to freedom, Elizabeth Keckley was an intimate part of the Lincoln White House from the beginning. Mary Todd Lincoln, who felt the urgent need for a wardrobe that would allow her to uphold her dignity among the hostile women of Washington society, summoned Keckley to the White House to interview for the position of her personal dressmaker. She rapidly become Mrs. Lincoln’s closest confidante, and their relationship developed into a complex friendship despite the racial barriers of the time.
Mrs. Keckley became indispensable to Mrs. Lincoln as the war and personal tragedies took their toll on the first lady. Mrs. Lincoln suffered from incapacitating headaches, and Elizabeth was the only person she trusted to aid her during those episodes. Both women lost sons during the war’s earliest years: Elizabeth’s son enlisted in the Union army as a white man and was killed in Missouri in 1861, while Mary’s beloved son Willie succumbed to the typhoid that was a frequent threat in a capital built on swampland and crisscrossed with open sewers.

Elizabeth was a pillar of the extensive African-American middle class in Washington and was extremely active in organizations aimed at relieving the plight of “contrabands,” the slaves freed by the occupying Union army as it took territory in the south.

When Mrs. Keckley published Behind the Scenes, an intimate memoir of her years inside the Lincoln White House, Mary Lincoln’s feelings of betrayal ended their friendship. Though they were estranged for many years, she claimed that Mary Lincoln eventually contacted her and that they reconciled. Regardless, her memoir has been invaluable as a look inside the Lincoln household during the Civil War and its aftermath.

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