Elizabeth Keckley

(c. 1818—1907)

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

(c.1818–1907), seamstress, activist, and author.

Elizabeth Keckley became a center of public controversy with the 1868 publication of Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.

Born a slave in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, Keckley became such an accomplished seamstress that she was able to purchase her own freedom and her son's. After manumission she moved from St. Louis to establish herself in Washington, D. C., in 1860, becoming modiste first to the wife of Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis and finally to Mary Todd Lincoln during Abraham Lincoln's first term. Two-thirds of Behind the Scenes concerns Keckley's life with the Lincolns and the difficult period following the president's assassination, especially Mary Lincoln's desperate attempt to raise money through what became known as the “Old Clothes Scandal.” A misplaced trust in her editor, James Redpath, and the sensationalist marketing of Carleton and Company culminated in a furor, the as-advertised “literary thunderbolt”. Because of revelations about Mary Lincoln and the inclusion of her personal letters, Robert Lincoln pressured the publisher to remove Keckley's book from sale and terminated all relations with Keckley. After serving as Director of Domestic Arts at Wilberforce University, Keckley retired to Washington, D. C. She never again wrote for publication. She died in 1907, a resident of the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C.

While antebellum slave narratives treat slavery as an unadulterated evil and slaveowners as devilish, Keckley's and other post-Civil War narratives emphasize slavery as a school for instruction in self-reliance and hard work. Keckley's success, along with an awareness of the South brought low, allows her reconciling visit with the Garlands, her former owners. Although her sexual exploitation in slavery recalls that of her contemporary Harriet A. Jacobs, Keckley refuses to make black female sexuality an issue in Behind the Scenes, preferring instead to stress her achievement as a successful career woman in freedom.

John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln, 1942.William L. Andrews, “The Changing Moral Discourse of Nineteenth-Century African American Women's Autobiography: Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley,” De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, eds. 1992, pp. 225–241.Frances Smith Foster, Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892, 1993.Jennifer Fleischner, Mastering Slavery, 1997.———, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, 2003.Xiomara Santamarina, Belabored Professions: Narratives of African American Working Womanhood (2005).Susan S. Williams, Reclaiming Authorship: Literary Women in America, 1850-1900 (2006).Katherine Adams, Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women's Life Writing (2009).

Anne Bradford Warner

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.