Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Freedom's First

Thanks to our Children's Librarian for another great post -- all about Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and companion to one of our country's most famous First Ladies! 

Elizabeth Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben) and Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Fields)

The Oscar-nominated film Lincoln brings to life many historical figures who played a part in the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment. Some, like Secretary of State William Henry Seward (1801 – 1872) or Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania (1792 – 1868) were well-known in their own right.

But the character portrayed by Gloria Reuben probably would not be remembered at all if it wasn’t for her connection to President Lincoln through Mrs. Lincoln --  even though her life is the stuff movies are made of.

Elizabeth Keckley (some places spelled Keckly) was born a slave, and through her skills as a dressmaker, was able to buy her freedom. She met Mary Todd Lincoln on the day of the first inauguration, and she soon became dressmaker, companion, and confidant to the troubled First Lady.

Mrs. Lincoln had grown up in the care of her beloved “mammy,” and Elizabeth became another great source of strength and comfort to her, especially when the Lincolns' son, Willie, died.

The President, on the other hand, was not accustomed to dealing with “coloreds” on a personal level. He certainly did not grow up with servants, and because he was from Illinois (a state that had a severely enforced segregation policy), he did not have the experience with free blacks that many in his government did. This scene from the movie (screenplay by Tony Kushner) sums up the feelings of both Lincoln and Elizabeth:

(The carriage has pulled up and Mary is entering the White House. Lincoln helps Mrs. Keckley down from the carriage.)

(She hesitates before proceeding in. Then she faces Lincoln.)

I know the vote is only four days away; I know you’re concerned. Thank you for your concern over
this, and I want you to know: They’ll approve it. God will see to it.

I don’t envy Him His task. He may wish He’d chosen an instrument for His purpose more wieldy than the House of Representatives.

Then you’ll see to it.

(Lincoln looks at her, considering. Then:)

Are you afraid of what lies ahead? For your people? If we succeed?

White people don’t want us here.

Many don’t.

What about you?

I … I don’t know you, Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re … familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you. But what you are to the nation, what’ll become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.

What my people are to be, I can’t say. Negroes have been fighting and dying for freedom since the first of us was a slave. I never heard any ask what freedom will bring. Freedom’s first. As for me: My son died, fighting for the Union, wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. I’m his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?

On the night the President was shot, Mary called for Elizabeth to be by her side. After his death, Mary gave Elizabeth some of the President’s personal grooming items, as well as the blood-spattered cloak and bonnet that Mary had been wearing at the theater. (These items were later the center of controversy with Mary, when Elizabeth attempted to sell them.)

Elizabeth traveled with Mrs. Lincoln to Chicago to help her start a new life. There was no pension for the President’s widow, and Mary, who had often been criticized for her lavish spending, was deeply in debt. When Mary, with Elizabeth’s help, tried to raise funds by selling her White House wardrobe, she was again harshly criticized.

In 1868, Elizabeth's book, Behind the Scenes: or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White 
House, was published. In her book, using alternating chapters, she attempted to “place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world,” while also describing her own “rise from slavery to [being] a middle-class businesswomen.”

The publisher included letters from Mrs. Lincoln to Elizabeth, and instead of being viewed as a personal narrative giving insight into history, as she had intended, Elizabeth was stunned to find her memoir viewed as a tell-all by the hired help. It has been suggested the Mary’s son, Robert, who had his mother committed to an asylum in 1875, played a part in the negative backlash over the book.

Elizabeth Keckley died in 1907, a resident of the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C.


Titles in our collection:

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave by Jennifer Fleischner

Mary Lincoln's Dressmaker: Elizabeth Keckley's Remarkable Rise From Slave to White House Confidante by Becky Rutberg

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini

From the county:

Behind the Scenes: or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley & Mary Todd Lincoln by Lynda Jones

Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference from Visible Ink Press

An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley by Ann Rinaldi

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