Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House

An image of Keckley courtesy of the Documenting the American South Project at UNC-Chapel Hill An image of Keckley courtesy of the Documenting the American South Project at UNC-Chapel Hill

 

All this month we’re bringing you stories from North Carolina’s black history. Check back here each week day for a new tidbit from our state’s African American’s past. Born a slave in Virginia around 1820, Elizabeth Keckley came to North Carolina with her master’s son when he became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Hillsborough in 1835. Having earned money as a seamstress, Keckley purchased her freedom and that of her son George in 1855. In 1860, Keckley moved to Washington, D.C. where she established a dressmaking business, catering to the wives of politicians such as Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis. A client recommended her to Mary Todd Lincoln who hired her in March 1861. The two women developed a close friendship, and Keckley even assisted President Abraham Lincoln with his clothes and hair before public appearances. The friendship was highlighted in Stephen Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln. In 1868, Keckley published her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or 30 Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, with appended personal correspondence from Mary Todd Lincoln. At the time Keckley reported that she wrote the book in order to help raise money for her friend, Mrs. Lincoln, and to help neutralize harsh criticism of the former First Lady. The authenticity of Behind the Scenes has never been questioned and has been extensively cited by Lincoln biographers.

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