How a Seamstress Went From Slavery to the White House

Seamstress Elizabeth Keckly traveled all the way from slavery to the White House.

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"It was a very emotional tie," Fleischner explains. At a time of personal—and, as the war's toll mounted, national—grief, Keckly be came the troubled first lady's comforter. So much so that, the morning after Lincoln's assassination, Keckly was one of the first people Mrs. Lincoln sent for, her "best living friend."

Betrayal? The friendship ended abruptly in 1868, when Keckly published her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Keckly had written partly out of economic need—she had virtually shut down her business to tend Mrs. Lincoln—but also to defend her own integrity, after having been drawn into Mrs. Lincoln's plan to pay off her own debts by selling her old clothes. Mrs. Lincoln viewed the book as a betrayal.

So did the public, and the press attacked Keckly with vicious, racist parodies. "White readers did not want to see black writers, especially black women writers, talking about these iconic figures in a way that revealed that they were very human," says William Andrews, an authority on slave narratives and English professor at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "Mary Todd Lincoln had many detractors, but as one reviewer said, if such a thing can be done with the Lincoln family, imagine what a servant could write about any family!"

"She tapped into white anxieties about free blacks in post-Civil War America," adds Carolyn Sorisio of West Chester University of Pennsylvania. "She stepped over the line of what was acceptable. Ridiculing her book was a way of putting her in her place."

Despite the backlash, Keckly continued her dressmaking business, often hiring black women as apprentices and training them to be seamstresses. In the 1890s, she also served as head of Wilberforce University's domestic arts department and designed a dress exhibit for the Chicago World's Fair. She died in 1907, at a home for destitute black women, an institution partially funded by a relief organization that Keckly herself had helped found in 1862.

But, says Fleischner, her journey from slavery to the White House remains "a testimony to her genius."