Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Keckley’

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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There are wonderful African American writers to read all year long, but we pause during Black History Month to celebrate a few.  As it happens, the writers who first come to mind are all women, so here’s a fast forward nod to Women’s History Month in March too.  Among Carole Boston Weatherford, Eleanora Tate, Zelda Lockhart, and Maya Angelou, there are selections for all ages.  There are a couple of autobiographies from the 1800s too, by Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley.

The beautifully crafted words of Maya Angelou from her poem, Still I Rise, is a fitting salute to them all. 

You may write me down in history
With your bitter twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Maya Angelou was born in Missouri, but has been a distinguished professor at Wake Forest University since 1981.  In the 1950s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and was among writers associated with the Civil Rights Movement.  She was a friend of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Devastated by King’s assassination in 1968, Angelou turned to writing her life’s story that became “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” From that publication in 1970 on, she has been a national figure whose published works number more than 30.  Angelou has received many awards, including in 2011 the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack Obama.

Eleanora Tate comes from Missouri and now lives in Morehead City.  She says she writes “for folks from 9 through 99, and “I like to write about African Americans so that readers of all colors can get a truer viewpoint of who we are…”  She has written professionally for more than 30 years. Her popular title, “The Secret of Gumbo Grove” is part of a trilogy of books set in fictional Calvary County in South Carolina.  It is about a weedy, old cemetery where many of the African American founders of Myrtle Beach are buried.  She has won several honors including a Parents’ Choice Award.  Tate says “When the arts decline, the nation declines; when the arts flourish, the nation flourishes.”

Carole Boston Weatherford grew up in Baltimore, and now lives in High Point.  She composed her first poem at age 6, which her mother wrote down.  She had a career in marketing and public relations before earning a master’s degree in creative writing.  She initially wanted to write poetry for adults, but by the time she graduated decided to write historical fiction and poetry for children.  Her first children’s book, “Juneteenth Jamboree” was published in 1995.  Weatherford has authored almost 30 children’s books, and has found her niche mining the past for “family stories, fading traditions, and forgotten struggles.”  Her acclaimed historical titles for juveniles include “Moses,” “The Sound that Jazz Makes” and “Freedom on the Menu:  The Greensboro Sit-ins.”  She is recipient of NAACP Image Award, Caldecott Award, the North Carolina Award, and others.  She also teaches at Fayetteville State University.

Zelda Lockhart was born in Mississippi and now lives in Durham.  Her debut novel, “Fifth Born,” was a 2002 Barnes & Noble Discovery selection and finalist for debut fiction from the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Foundation.  Lockhart also published “Cold Running Creek,” in 2002 and “Fifth Born II:  The Hundredth Turtle” in 2010. She was the 2010 Piedmont Laureate and spent a year sharing her passion for literature with Piedmont North Carolina through community programs.  Lockhart has been writing for 25 years.  She writes of family secrets, poverty, and the influence of historical periods and cultural practices on lives. 

Harriet Jacobs, born in Edenton, tells her story in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” published in 1861.  The autobiography details the uncertainty of slave life, rebuffing unwanted sexual advances, hiding in a crawl space for about seven years, and then escaping slavery. She escaped in 1842, and achieved her freedom in 1852.  In the north, she took on the abolitionist cause, and at the end of the Civil War worked to help freedmen with their education.


Elizabeth Keckley became a dressmaker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln.  Keckley was born in Virginia but lived in Hillsborough, while on loan by her owner to his son.  Through her sewing she was able to purchase her freedom in 1855, and to establish a dressmaking business in Washington, D.C., in 1860.  Her clientele were the wives of prominent figures and politicians.  She became the modiste of Mrs. Lincoln and a close friend.  In 1898, she published her autobiography “Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.”  Keckley reported that she believed the book would help the widowed Mrs. Lincoln, who was having financial difficulty, but it had the opposite effect.  Mrs. Lincoln felt betrayed and the two women never spoke again.

These writers craft their stories with universal truths and respect for the act of creating and for the audience.  As Maya Angelou concludes, in Still I Rise:

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

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