Monday, February 2, 2015

Remember the Past: The First Lady's Seamstress and Confidante

Hopefully, you had a chance to read my first post in this Remember the Past series; it was about Dr. Charles Drew.

In this next post, I'm going to introduce you to Elizabeth Keckley: The First Lady's Seamstress and Confidante.

Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Virginia in 1818. She became a seamstress and made dresses for the women of the area. Through her work as a seamstress, she was able to purchase her and her son's freedom in 1855. In D.C., she made beautiful dresses for the socialites. Her reputation for style, flair, and expert fit helped her score the ultimate client: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who was known as a clotheshorse. (It's believed that she overspent her 1861 clothes stipend by $6,000.)

Keckley ended up becoming more than just FLOTUS Lincoln's dressmaker; she became a friend and confidante.  The death of both women's sons within several months of one another helped bring them even closer. After President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Keckley was there to comfort the grief-stricken Mrs. Lincoln.

After Lincoln's assassination, the very traumatized Mary Todd Lincoln was deeply in debt due to her extravagant spending while still a FLOTUS.  She ultimately would battle Congress to receive a presidential widow's pension, which she won by a slim margin to the tune of $3,000 per year. Immediately, following Lincoln's death, the FLOTUS attempted to sell her wardrobe which turned into the Old Clothes Scandal.  Keckley assisted in these attempts.

In an effort to help Lincoln's reputation, Keckley published a memoir in 1868; it was titled Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years as a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Unfortunately, the book had the opposite effect because FLOTUS Lincoln viewed the book as a betrayal and the women never communicated again.
Although the book is viewed favorably now for shedding insights on the Lincoln White House, at the time, it was received horribly. Aside from sharing personal connections and relationships that were not discussed publicly at that time, it was written by a Black woman.  "How dare she?" was likely a frequent remark. Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln even went so far as to attempt to get Keckley's publisher to pull the book.

After the publication of the book and public fallout, Keckley lost her high standing as a dressmaker. In 1892, Keckley went to teach at Wilberforce University in Ohio in the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts.  Unfortunately, poor health limited her abilities and she could not continue in her duties at the school. It is believed she mourned the loss of FLOTUS Lincoln's friendship for the rest of her life.

Elizabeth Keckley died in 1907 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in D.C.

Keckley was portrayed by Gloria Reuben in the 2012 film Lincoln, as seen here:

Here, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln is wearing a dress made by Keckley.



This quilt was made by Keckley.

While Elizabeth Keckley's life ended somewhat tragically compared to the life she had lived, like so many of the other people I suspect will be in this series, she lived an amazing life that I'm sure she could not have dreamed of while living on plantations in the South.

Remember, no matter how long your life, it's what you do in the time you have. These lives are worth remembering.

Pay attention to history.


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