Elizabeth Keckley: 30 Years a Slave


Elizabeth KeckleyMy life has been an eventful one. I was born a slave–was the child of slave parents–therefore I came upon the earth free in God-like thought, but fettered in action. My birthplace was Dinwiddie Court-House, in Virginia. My recollections of childhood are distinct, perhaps for the reason that many stirring incidents are associated with that period. I am now on the shady side of forty, and as I sit alone in my room the brain is busy, and a rapidly moving panorama brings scene after before me, some pleasant and others sad; and when I thus greet old familiar faces, I often find myself wondering if I am not living the past over again. The visions are so terribly distinct that I almost imagine them to be real. Hour after hour I sit while the scenes are being shifted; and as I gaze upon the panorama of the past, I realize how crowded with incidents my life has been. Every day seems like a romance within itself, and the years grow into ponderous volumes. As I cannot condense, I must omit many strange passages in my history. From such a wilderness of events it is difficult to make a selection, but as I am not writing altogether the history of myself, I will confine my story to the most important incidents which I believe influenced the moulding of my character. As I glance over the crowded sea of the past, these incidents stand forth prominently, the guide-posts of memory. 

From: Behind the scenes, or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)

STANDARD 2: How the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions.

Standard 2D: The student understands the rapid growth of “the peculiar institution” after 1800 and the varied experiences of African Americans under slavery.

5-12: Describe the plantation system and the roles of their owners, their families, hired white workers, and enslaved African Americans. [Consider multiple perspectives]
5-12: Identify the various ways in which African Americans resisted the conditions of their enslavement and analyze the consequences of violent uprisings. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877) 

STANDARD 2: The course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people.
Standard 2B: The student understands the social experience of the war on the battlefield and homefront. 

5-12: Compare women’s homefront and battlefront roles in the Union and the Confederacy. [Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Behind the scenes, or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House: a machine-readable transcription
    AUTHOR: Elizabeth Keckley (New York: G.W. Carlton)
    SOURCE: Prepared as part of The Digital Schomburg
  2. DESCRIPTION: Engraving, Elizabeth Keckley
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1868 in Behind the scenes, or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House: a machine-readable transcription
    SOURCE: Prepared as part of The Digital Schomburg
  3. DESCRIPTION: Dressmaker and Former Slave Elizabeth Keckley (ca.1818–1907), Tells How She Gained Her Freedom
    NOTES: Description from History Matters: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born around 1818 in Virginia, a slave of the Burwell family. At fourteen she was loaned to the Rev. Robert Burwell, her master’s son, who lived in North Carolina. There she gave birth to her son George, the product of an unwanted encounter with a white man. After several unhappy years with Robert Burwell and his family, Keckley was sent to live in St. Louis with Anne Burwell Garland, a married daughter of the Burwells. In this selection from her 1868 memoir Behind the Scenes, Keckley describes how she bought her freedom from the Garland family, a process that was completed in November 1855. Her sincere efforts to live within slavery’s rules are striking and indicate how deeply the slave system’s practices and values permeated both the black and white cultures of the South. After her emancipation Keckley earned her living as a dressmaker in Washington, D.C.; she died there in poverty in 1907.
    SOURCE: History Matters
  4. DESCRIPTION: Gown made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln
    COLLECTION: First Ladies Collection
    SOURCE: Legacies: Collection America’s History at the Smithsonian
  5. DESCRIPTION: Photograph, Cloak worn by Mrs. Lincoln on the night of the assassination with blood stains
    NOTE: “In packing, Mrs. Lincoln gave away everything intimately connected with the President, as she said that she could not bear to be reminded of the past…The cloak, stained with the President’s blood, was given to me, as also was the bonnet worn on the same memorable night.” From: Behind the Scenes.
    SOURCE: The Bloody Evidence
  6. DESCRIPTION: Letter, Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln 
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: November 3, 1862
    NOTES: Mrs. Lincoln notes Elizabeth Keckley’s participation in the Contraband Association and her authorization to collect clothing, bedding, etc. on their behalf. She has been unsuccessful. “Out of the $1000 fund deposited with you by Gen Corcoran, I have given her the privelege of investing $200 her, in bed covering– She is the most deeply grateful being, I ever saw, & this sum, I am sure, you will not object to being used in this way– The cause of humanity requires it — and there will be $800 left of the fund– I am sure, this will meet your approbation”
    SOURCE: The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress
  7. DESCRIPTION: Former Slave Elizabeth Keckley and the “Contraband” of Washington DC.
    NOTES: Description from History Matters: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born in slavery in Virginia around 1818 and purchased her freedom in 1855. In 1862 she was living in Washington DC and working as a skilled dressmaker; her principal client was Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the president. Keckley sympathized with the former slaves, or “contraband,” as they were called, who fled to the relative safety of Washington during the Civil War. The Contraband Relief Association, which Keckley founded and headed, gathered funds and clothing for the poor former slaves. Yet, as her rather condescending remarks make clear, Keckley felt superior to the people she helped. Keckley’s memoir Behind the Scenes was published in 1868. The book included revelations about Mary Lincoln’s private life, and, feeling betrayed, the former First Lady shunned Keckley. Her dressmaking business declined, and she died in poverty in 1907 at the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, one of the institutions she had helped to found.
    SOURCE: History Matters
  8. DESCRIPTION: Letter, Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: November 2 [1862]
    NOTES: Helps to illustrates relationship between Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley. “A day or two since, I had one of my severe attacks, if it had not been for Lizzie Keckley, I do not know what I should have done– Some of these periods, will launch me away.”
    SOURCE: The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

Additional Media Resources

Mr. Lincoln’s Virtual Library From the Library of Congress American Memory Project

American Women in the Civil War, 1861-1865

The Time of the Lincolns. From PBS

Additional Instructional Resources

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON SLAVERY: Writing the History of African American Slave Women

Secondary Resources

Andrews, William L. “Reunion in the Postbellum Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth KeckleyBlack American Literature Forum, Vol. 23, No. 1. (Spring, 1989), pp. 5-16.

Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography New York: W. W. & Company, 1987.

Fleischner, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.

Foster, Frances. “‘In Respect to Females…’: Differences in the Portrayals of Women by Male and Female NarratorsBlack American Literature Forum, Vol. 15, No. 2. (Summer, 1981), pp. 66-70.

Ostendorf, Lloyd. “Elizabeth Keckley’s Lost Lincoln Relics.” Lincoln Herald 71, no. 1 (1969): 14-18.

Polsky, Milton. “The American Slave Narrative: Dramatic Resource Material for the ClassroomThe Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 45, No. 2. (Spring, 1976), pp. 166-178.

Rutberg, Becky. Mary Lincoln’s Dressmaker: Elizabeth Keckley’s Remarkable Rise from Slave to White House Confidante. Walker & Co, 1995. [Juvenile non-fiction, grades 6-10]

Sorisio, Carolyn, “Unmasking the Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes and the Politics of Public Wrath”; African American Review (34): 19-38.

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This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.