For the third year in a row, the National Museum of Women in the Arts is asking cultural institutions and individuals to tweet the stories of women artists using the hashtag #5womenartists. This year, the museum is asking for a special focus on women artists of color, and my post today is dedicated to one of the most poignant stories in American material history: that of Elizabeth Keckley.
Born a slave in Virginia in 1818, Elizabeth Keckley was the daughter of an enslaved mother and her white enslaver. Put to work as a nursemaid at the age of four, Keckley’s childhood and young adulthood were filled with the violence and depredation of slavery. At the age of eighteen, she was beaten severely over the course of several weeks by a neighbor determined to break her spirit. When she was twenty-one, she bore a son, George, the product of a forced sexual relationship with Alexander M. Kirkland, a prominent white man.
But even as she experienced terrible brutality, Keckley learned the art of dressmaking, and became an accomplished seamstress. In 1847, her enslavers relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, and she sewed dresses for the family and for members of the community, for a fee. By 1855, she had earned enough money through her dressmaking to buy freedom for herself and for her son. In 1860, she moved back east, first to Baltimore, and soon after to Washington, DC. Soon, she was making dresses for the wives of some of the most powerful men in Washington, including Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee, and Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis.
In December 1860, the secession crisis preceding the Civil War began, and on March 4, 1861, the day of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential inauguration, Elizabeth Keckley met Mary Todd Lincoln. The next day, Mrs. Lincoln appointed Keckley as her personal modiste, and over the next six years, Keckley stayed with Mrs. Lincoln as both a dressmaker and a confidante. While Mrs. Lincoln’s style tended toward the ostentatious, Keckley’s dresses for her were more streamlined, with clean lines and sophisticated details. It is difficult to attribute particular garments definitively to Keckley, as handmade garments in the nineteenth century did not include labels, but several existing gowns in major collections have been attributed to her. A quilt made by Keckley from scraps of Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses is in the Kent State University Museum.
On August 10, 1861, Keckley’s son George, who had enlisted in a white regiment in the Union Army, was killed in action. On February 20, 1862, the Lincolns’ 12-year old son, Willie, died in the White House, most likely from typhoid. Their shared sense of loss brought the two women closer together, and when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Keckley was a source of strength and comfort for Mary through her very public grief.
While employed by the Lincoln White House, Keckley worked to improve the lives of “contrabands,” the name given by the Union Army to enslaved people who escaped to Union lines and offered support and allegiance to the army. In 1862, she founded the Contraband Relief Association to provide food and shelter to those in need. In 1864, the organization was re-christened the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldiers’ Relief Association, in order to reflect its work with soldiers of the United States Colored Troops. Thanks to her prominence in Washington’s free black community and in political circles, Keckley was an effective advocate for soldiers and freedmen.
In 1868, Keckley wrote a book detailing her experiences in the Lincoln White House, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (available for free download on Google Books!). Many in the white community felt that the book revealed too much about Keckley’s relationship with the Lincolns, and after its publication, she and Mary Lincoln became permanently estranged. Her business declined, and she spent the last years of her life at the National Home for Destitute and Colored Women and Children, where she died in 1907.
Slavery had an enormous effect on the development of American art and material culture, denying access to the privileges of the art world to many generations of creative people. It is haunting to consider all that was lost over those years, and one wonders how these individuals, denied the access and encouragement they deserved, found an outlet for their artistic ideas. Elizabeth Keckley’s story provides one possible answer. She channeled her considerable skill into a trade through which she bought freedom for herself and her son, entered the most intimate circles of power in Civil War-era Washington, and advocated on behalf of the enslaved and the recently freed. Her story should be known wherever American history, art, and material culture are discussed.