Former slave Elizabeth Keckley’s memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, didn’t sell well when it was published in the 19th century, James R. Sanders writes at Ebony, in part because of a smear campaign by those who took offense at her portrayal of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, with whom she had a long and close relationship as a dressmaker and confidante.
But now, thanks to Gloria Reuben’s portrayal of Keckley in Spielberg’s Lincoln, a film based on the last four months of President Lincoln’s administration, there’s renewed interest in her story — both her time in the White House as well as her rise from slavery to become a successful entrepreneur. Sanders shares the highlights:
Her mistress resented her for being the biological child of her husband. At 14, she was given to her master’s White son — her own brother — to serve as his slave on his North Carolina plantation. Again, she was faced with a mistress who took a great disliking to her and sought to ‘break her’ as much as possible.
In 1839, she had a child. Though she avoids acknowledging whether or not the child was a product of assault, it is widely reported that claim that Keckley was raped by local notable Alexander J. Kirkland and her son George was his offspring.
Soon after George’s birth, Elizabeth was relocated to Virginia, where she and her mother served yet another family. In 1847, the group moved to St. Louis, where Elizabeth was able to mingle with members of the local free Black community; there, she started to plan for her own exit from slavery.
Eventually, she would end up being the family’s only source of income when she discovered her penchant for sewing.
She writes, “With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen peoples for two years and five months.” And it would be that talent that motivated her to work for her freedom.
Read more at Ebony.