HILLSBOROUGH — Nearly every time Mary Todd Lincoln appears in Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln,” a woman is at her side. In real life, the woman was the first lady’s best friend, a dressmaker who spent her teenage years as a slave in Hillsborough – and later bought her own freedom on her way to the White House.
Elizabeth Keckley (played by actress Gloria Reuben) is mostly silent in Spielberg’s film, but she was a constant presence in the White House during the Civil War. She designed the first lady’s elaborate gowns and witnessed the Lincoln presidency from the inside, as Mary Todd Lincoln’s closest friend.
Despite her extraordinary journey, Keckley (sometimes spelled Keckly) became little more than a footnote in history books. She is now getting her time in the spotlight, however, with Spielberg’s movie; a New York stage play, “A Civil War Christmas”; and best-selling author Jennifer Chiaverini’s new novel, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.”
Local residents have shown more of an interest in Keckley since the movie, said Rebecca Ryan, executive director of the Historic Hillsborough Commission, which runs the museum at the Burwell School, a Presbyterian parsonage-turned-landmark girls’ school where Keckley lived.
“People are really amazed and fascinated to learn of such an important historical figure’s local connection to North Carolina and to Hillsborough,” said Ryan, who gives talks throughout the state on Keckley. “The majority of my audiences have never heard of her before.”
North Carolina officially commemorates Keckley’s time in the state through a historical marker on Churton Street outside the Burwell School, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In December 1835, 17-year-old Keckley moved to the house from Virginia with her owner’s son, Robert Burwell, when he took a job as the pastor of the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church. Burwell’s wife, Margaret Anna, was a teacher who founded the first modern school for girls in North Carolina in the house. (Years later, Keckley learned she was Burwell’s half-sister.)
Most of what the commission knows about Keckley is from Keckley’s autobiography. Her five or six years in North Carolina were difficult – as the Burwells’ only slave, she felt she did the work of three slaves, and she was away from her mother for the first time. Burwell and his neighbor beat “Lizzy” at Margaret Anna’s urging. Keckley was proud and independent even as a teenager, and Keckley suspected Margaret Anna hoped to suppress these qualities through the beatings.
“I can feel the torture now, the terrible, excruciating agony of those moments,” Keckley wrote.
Although slaves made up one-third of the population of Orange County in the 1830s, Keckley said the beatings she suffered shocked Hillsborough residents.
“Those revolting scenes created a great sensation at the time,” she wrote. “(They) were the talk of the town and neighborhood.”
Keckley also had a son, George, against her will with a prominent local white man, Alexander Kirkland, who “persecuted” her for four years, she wrote. George passed for white and died in the first year of the Civil War fighting for the Union Army, a loss that further tied Keckley to Lincoln, whose son Willie died shortly afterward in 1862.
During her time in Hillsborough, Keckley practiced the skill that would become her route out of slavery – she made wedding dresses and served as the maid of honor in weddings for friends both black and white.
The Burwell School boarding academy opened in 1837, offering rigorous classes that few other schools for girls did at that time, including astronomy, botany and natural philosophy. Girls 12 to 16 came from as far away as Texas to attend the school.
In 1855, 37-year-old Keckley used money she made from making dresses for St. Louis society women to buy herself and her son from Burwell’s brother-in-law, Hugh Garland, who had served as Dred Scott’s lead defense attorney. Keckley had asked Garland whether she could buy herself and her son, and he set what he thought was an impossibly high price for her to meet, $1,200. When she saved the money, he honored his promise. Keckley, however, stayed in St. Louis another five years to pay off debts she had to the society women who gave her loans to help start her business.
After moving to Baltimore and then Washington, D.C., Keckley made elaborate dresses for prominent society women, including Julia Dent Grant, wife of Ulysses S. Grant. Varina Davis, the wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, wanted to take Keckley with her to Richmond at the start of the Confederacy.
“But she didn’t end up with the first lady of the Confederacy,” Ryan said. “She ended up with the first lady of the United States. She was at the top of her game, and she was a sought-after woman among all the politicians’ wives, all the businessmen’s wives.”
‘Far from a maid’
Spielberg’s movie may give viewers a misleading impression of Keckley’s role in the Lincoln White House, said Burwell School docent Steve Peck. Some reviewers described Keckley as a maid, not realizing that the first lady was her client.
“If you don’t know about Keckley and you watch the film, I understand why you would come to that conclusion,” he said. “She was far from a maid.”
Keckley’s 1868 autobiography, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” is an invaluable slave narrative. At the time, however, many observers viewed the book as a betrayal of Keckley’s close relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley said she wrote the book in part to shore up Lincoln’s declining reputation. The move backfired, however, and the friends’ relationship was never the same after the book’s publication.
Keckley’s portrayal of Lincoln, although probably honest, did not present the unpopular former first lady in the best light, said William L. Andrews, a professor of English at UNC-Chapel Hill. Many people were upset that a black woman would presume to write about upper-class white people in such a personal way, he added. Keckley lived to be 88 years old, but she never wrote another word about her life.
“She was an independent businesswoman in a highly charged racial atmosphere in the 1860s, and her autobiography is quite revealing and a very impressive piece of work,” Andrews said. Last year, UNC Press and UNC Library re-issued the autobiography in both print and electronic editions through the DocSouth Books program.
Widespread disapproval of the publication of Keckley’s book may have worked against her legacy and could explain why Keckley is not as well-known as other ex-slaves with extraordinary stories, like abolitionist Sojourner Truth, whose meeting with Abraham Lincoln Keckley helped arrange.
“I’ve kind of toyed with, ‘Why hasn’t she gotten more credit in history?’ ” Ryan said. “And I guess I don’t know the answer really. I’m not sure why she’s just now getting the credit she deserves.”