Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), also spelled Keckly, was born into slavery and became a skilled seamstress. In 1855 she bought her freedom and moved to Washington D.C. She became a prominent designer for high ranking wives of politicians including Mary Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee and Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis. Eventually she worked as Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal couturier. Her gift for flattering fittings and tailoring details was unrivaled. By today’s standards, Keckley would be regarded as an exclusive fashion designer creating high end original pieces for her powerful clientele.
Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln formed a deep and genuine friendship. The hours of time together, the intimate setting of fitting a garment, and the fact that both of them had suffered the death of a son, created a natural space for human connection. Mrs. Lincoln donated to Keckley's Contraband Relief Association which helped newly freed slaves adjust to life after emancipation and Keckley was the first person that Mrs. Lincoln asked for after her husband was assassinated. They were close friends until Keckley’s autobiography was published. It was called “Behind the Scenes Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House”.
In this personal original source document, Keckley recounts what slavery was really like for her. She had been beaten regularly and in 1839 she bore a child from a rape perpetrated by a prominent white member of society. Her earnings as a seamstress actually supported her white owners making it even harder to have the $1200 needed to buy freedom for herself and her son. (That’s about $36K in 2020. She did it through loans and savings.)
Keckley had intended the book to be fair and kind to Mrs. Lincoln who was often widely criticized for extravagance and “outrageous behavior” in public. As she writes “An act may be wrong judged purely by itself, but when the motive that prompted the act is understood, it is construed differently.” Keckley's intent seems to have been meant to portray Mrs. Lincoln as a sympathetic character, but that’s not the way Mrs. Lincoln and others saw the book. A factor for Keckley’s need to publish a book was that she was struggling financially. She had helped Mrs. Lincoln get out of financial distress by helping her sell her old dresses but was never paid for her services and Mrs. Lincoln later received an inheritance which would have enabled her to rightfully pay Keckley. Keckley’s association with Mrs. Lincoln and the “old clothes affair” hurt her ability to be hired as a dressmaker so she wrote a book as the best means to earn an honest wage and soften the public’s view of her friend: Mrs. Lincoln.
The backlash of the book was swift and strong. Mrs. Lincoln referred to Keckley as a “colored historian” and upper white society turned their back on Keckley. She had violated not only rules of color but also codes of economic strata. She was eventually hired by Wilberforce University in Ohio as the head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Service. After suffering a stroke, she could no longer work and moved back to Washington D.C. where she spent the rest of her days at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children. Ironically, the facility was funded by the Contraband Relief Organization, which she had founded in 1862. She died there in 1907.
A purple velvet dress with white piping designed by Keckley and worn by Mrs. Lincoln is on display at the National Museum of American History.
Elizabeth Keckley’s book “Behind the Scenes” full manuscript https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/87/behind-the-scenes/
Mary Todd Lincoln’s dress designed by Elizabeth Keckley