By Mia Schneller
Elizabeth Keckley was born in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia into slavery under the Burwell family (Lewis 6) (Keckley 17). At around the age of eighteen, Keckley moved to North Carolina with her enslaver, Col. A. Burwell, so that he could take over a church in that area. During the time that she was enslaved in North Carolina, Keckley, though she writes that Burwell was “unusually kind” to her, recounts brutal treatment and abuse at the hands of others who worked at the church that Burwell oversaw. (Keckley 35). Further, though through her own words Keckley recounts that Burwell was kind, as a modern reader one understands the extent to which a person who owned slaves can really be considered kind. Thus, there is a sense that even when reading Keckley’s writing, we must also read between the lines with historical context in mind.
During her enslavement in North Carolina is also when Keckley gives birth to her only child, a son. Though Keckley does not go into the details about her son’s father, she gives her reader enough context to understand the difficulty of recounting her experience with her child’s father. In her autobiography she writes, “I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice to say that he persecuted me for four years, and I-I- became a mother” (Keckley 39). Again, while Keckley does not go in detail about how she became pregnant or the circumstances of her pregnancy or birth, the situational circumstances that she alludes to in the descriptions she does give us suggest this pregnancy was not only unwanted but also that she probably suffered from violence at the hands of her child’s father before and after her pregnancy. Keckley even writes that if her son ever suffered during his life, he should not blame her as his mother “for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position” (Keckley 39). Despite overt violence committed against Keckley during her experience in enslavement, including that which led to her pregnancy, she shows through her writing an incredibly sober understanding of the trauma that she experienced. Further, in acknowledging the limitations of her ability to discuss this trauma in her writing as well as her knowledge of her own innocence in the suffering of her child within the very system that led to her own suffering, Keckley practices an agency which had been attempted to be systematically denied to her through her status as enslaved. As Keckley continues to recount, following the circumstances that led to her giving birth to her son, she is left with no choice but to raise her son on her own while still enslaved (Keckley 39).
Keckley’s time living in North Carolina eventually ended when she moved back to Virginia to live with her old enslaver’s daughter and her husband. When her new enslavers, disappointed with their life in Virginia, left the state to go to St. Louis, Keckley followed them on that journey (Keckley 43). It is in St. Louis where Keckley began seriously pursuing her work as a dressmaker, first in order to prevent her mother from having to work for the same family as she. About this motivation, Keckley writes “I would rather work my fingers to the bone, bend over my sewing till the film of blindness gathered in my eyes; nay, even beg from street to street” than allow her mother to work for this family as they had requested (Keckley 45). Thus, Keckley’s endeavors in this craft are not only a testament to her own motivations and talents in the medium, but also evidence of how horrible her working conditions were when she was enslaved and her desire to save her mother from that fate. So, Keckley began finding more work for herself in order to avoid this, working first for this family and then making dresses for more women across St. Louis on behalf of her enslaver and his family. It is also this time as a dressmaker in St. Louis that Keckley, though still enslaved, is able to shift her understanding and outlook on her own labor. Though, because of her enslavement, Keckley’s labor is still, at least legally, not her own, the act of creating from her own hands represents a sort of command (and ownership) over her labor and her craft. Furthermore, having the skill, drive, and ability to create capital that supports a family is something that her enslaver, who had failed financially, could not do. In this sense, Keckley realizes that her labor is what supports her master’s family to the point where they would not be able to live without her (Lewis 7). The realization of her economic power combined with the bleak understanding that, as a slave, she was receiving nothing for herself from that labor, that to her masters she was merely the machine that produced their capital and allowed them to survive, is what drove her to secure her freedom (Lewis 8). This hope eventually came to fruition, after years of navigating the legal and economic systems put in place to prevent this act from happening, Keckley was able to purchase her and her son’s freedom at the age of thirty-one (Keckley 50) (Santamarina 516).
After purchasing her freedom, Keckley moved to the North, stopping in Baltimore on the way and eventually landing in Washington D.C. (Keckley 65). Washington D.C. becomes an important site for understanding Keckley’s life, history, and what prompted her to eventually write because it is here that she begins working for elite white women as a dressmaker. One of the first recognizably high profile clients that Keckley worked for during this time of her life was Jefferson Davis’ wife, who she worked for prior to the Civil War for which Davis’ became the president of the Confederacy (Keckley 65). Through her work with Mrs. Davis, Keckley recounts open discussions with her about the potential of civil war, even some where Mrs. Davis relented her devotion to the South to Keckley directly (Keckley 72). Despite considering joining Mrs. Davis and her family in the South, Keckley choses to stay in the North. About this decision she writes, “A show of war from the South, I felt, would lead to actual war in the North; and with the two sections bitterly arrayed against each other, I preferred to cast my lot among the people of the North” (Keckley 72). While Keckley shows a strong preference for the North, her autobiography does not go into detail about her decision making when parting with the Davis family. While one can theorize that Keckley’s race and her experience with slavery most definitely affects her decision to stay in the North and stop working for a family who planned on being the leaders of the Confederacy, she does not say this outright and instead defends her decision through her belief in the North’s ability to win when a conflict does arise. Despite the fact that Keckley remains in D.C., her connection to the Davis family and the fact that Davis attended the Fair provides another avenue through which one can link her to the Cotton Centennial in 1884 through recovery work.
After Keckley stopped her work with the Davis family when they moved to the South, she continued her work for wealthy white women in D.C., eventually becoming the dressmaker and close confidant of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Santamarina 516). While it is obvious that Keckley’s working for the First Lady is an important step within her career, it also becomes an important consideration within her writing and the legacy of her as both a dressmaker and an author. Further, considering the nature of Keckley’s work and the position she occupied as dressmaker for the First Lady, is an important connection to the ways in which Keckley may have been excluded from something like the Women’s Department at the 1884 World’s Fair. Though her own autobiography and the above scholarship acknowledge the importance of Keckley’s role for the First Lady, they also acknowledge the ways in which her work has been dismissed or cast aside in order to center the white First Lady. This centering and privileging of whiteness and the purposeful exclusion of the incredibly important work of Black women is mirrored by the actions of the women who ran the Women’s department by refusing to even allow in the work of Black women writers. As supported by the work of Keckley across her disciplines, reckoning with this aspect of her exclusion is essential to the recovery of her story as she wished it to be told.
Keckley’s story is an important one not only in what she accomplished in her life, her upbringing in slavery, her ability to purchase herself and her son, and her success as a dress maker but the creation of her own narrative of her life is a testament to the reclamation of her power over her life. Keckley’s original intention for her autobiography was to be a reclamation of her own story in her own words following a public scandal surrounding her employer, The First Lady. Though Keckley’s intentions were to help clear up the public outcry over Mrs. Lincoln, it was Keckley herself who bore the brunt of racism fueled criticism of her work, even by Lincoln herself (Sorisio 19). Even in more recent scholarship on this era, despite the obvious importance of Keckley’s writing, there have been few critical commentaries written about it and her story has been historically written off because the intimate details it shares about her relationship with the First Lady has often been regarded as gossip (Lewis 5). Keckley’s ability to relay her experiences as a confidant of Lincolns have also been misinterpreted by readers who impart their own views on the situations that Keckley describes, sometimes even seeing her actions as betraying Lincoln and thus see her as morally wrong (Santamarina 517). Furthermore, the prominence of her clientele, especially that of the First Lady, sometimes leads people who read her work and engage with it to center Mrs. Lincoln in their analysis rather than Keckley herself (Lewis 5). In doing so, devaluing Keckley’s narrative power and reinforcing the systemic erasure of her personhood and individuality that she experienced throughout her life.
Thus, it is important that Keckley’s writing, her autobiography titled Behind the Scenes be recovered through this exhibit not only because it has been historically cast off by the so-called canon. Keckley’s narrative belongs in the women’s exhibit because of what it teaches us about gendered labor for Black and enslaved women of her time. Additionally, Keckley’s writing is vital to our understanding of recovery as her narrative command over her own story is both the literal and symbolic manifestation of her ability to create her own agency within a world which was set up to deny her any semblance of that ability. It is not only through the reclamation of her labor and worth that is to be celebrated through this recovery but her drive to reclaim her voice and thus assert her humanity through her actions and her writing.
Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes. New York, NY, G.W. Carlton & Co., Publishers, 1868.
Lewis, Janaka B. “Elizabeth Keckley and Freedom’s Labor.” African American Review, vol. 49, no. 1, 2016, pp. 5–17. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26443974. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023.
Mann, Lina. “From Slavery to the White House: The Extraordinary Life of Elizabeth Keckly”. White House History, 14 September 2020. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/from-slavery-to-the-white-house-the-extraordinary-life-of-elizabeth-keckly. Accessed 8 May 2023.
Santamarina, Xiomara. “Behind the Scenes of Black Labor: Elizabeth Keckley and the Scandal of Publicity.” Feminist Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, 2002, pp. 515–37. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3178784. Accessed 25 Mar. 2023.
Sorisio, Carolyn. “Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley’s behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath.” African American Review, vol. 34, no. 1, 2000, pp. 19–38. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2901182. Accessed 9 May 2023.