Buying Freedom Through Dressmaking

The new movie 'Lincoln' explores the last months of Abraham Lincoln's life and sheds light on prominent figures of the time. One lesser-known person is former slave Elizabeth Keckley. She became a close confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Host Michel Martin speaks with professor Clarence Lusane about Keckley's contributions to American history.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now. You might've caught the new film "Lincoln" by acclaimed director Steven Spielberg. It's about the final months of Abraham Lincoln's life. It's a critical hit. It's filling theaters and generating talk about the Oscars. But most important, it's shedding new light on some of the key historical figures of the time.

One of those figures is Elizabeth Keckley. She was born into slavery and managed to buy her own freedom and that of her son. She became the personal dressmaker and close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln - all this before the Emancipation Proclamation.

And if you've seen the movie, you know that Elizabeth Keckley made only a brief appearance. We wanted to fill in some of the blanks so we've called upon Clarence Lusane. He is an associate professor at American University School of International Service and author of the book "The Black History of the White House." Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Thank you.

MARTIN: When it comes to Elizabeth Keckley and the portrayal of her, as we said, she doesn't play a major role in the film. I mean you see her but you don't hear from her very much. How do you assess it?

LUSANE: Well, in many ways it's a powerful film. However, there are many scenes where she literally is just sitting there. And you know, there's not a word to be said. And so it comes across as her as a passive, sort of waiting servant for Mary when that wasn't the relationship by any stretch.

MARTIN: We actually know quite a bit about Elizabeth Keckley's life in her own words. Why is that?

LUSANE: We know this because she wrote a book. Many years after she left the White House she wrote a book called "Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years and Four Years in the White House," in which she detailed her relationship not only with Mary Lincoln but also with Abraham Lincoln. But she also talked more generally about her life.

MARTIN: And talk about her early life, if you would. She had - I mean I think it is fair to say that she endured everything that we think of as being true about slavery. Is that accurate to say?

LUSANE: It is. She was born into slavery, as she had worked her way out of it, but she had been raped when she was younger. She had a son, George, and she not only worked and earned enough money working evenings - she worked on weekends as a dressmaker - she earned enough money, eventually, to buy both her freedom and that of George.

MARTIN: She was a sought-after dressmaker before Mary Todd Lincoln. Is that not correct? I mean, she had clients who were, you know, the creme de la creme of Washington society. Is that right?

LUSANE: That's exactly right. In fact, the most important corrective, I think, in terms of what the film portrays and what was reality is that if you look at the film, she basically is seen as a servant, but she really was an independent businesswoman and Mary Lincoln was her client.

MARTIN: Like Donna Karan, for example, who's known to dress the...

LUSANE: Right.

MARTIN: Who's known to have been - has been known to dress first ladies, or Oscar de la Renta or Tracy Reese or somebody of that sort.

LUSANE: Clearly one of the best dressmakers in Washington, D.C. in 1860, 1861, when the Lincolns first came.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Clarence Lusane. He's written a book called "The Black History of the White House." We're talking about Elizabeth Keckley, the former enslaved American who became a free businesswoman and a close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln's.

So she actually worked for and dressed wives of the people who were trying to keep people in slavery, you know, at this point.

Did she talk about that? I mean, did she talk about any ambivalence or difficulty in dressing these ladies?

LUSANE: She talked about it very intellectually and very - in some ways humorously in her book. Now, she - prior to working for Mary Lincoln, worked for Varina Davis, who was the wife of Jefferson Davis, who became the president of the Confederacy. So that's how she flowed. You know, she went to the top of the, you know, social establishment in Washington, D.C. of the time.

When Jefferson Davis and Varina were leaving Washington, as all of the Southern Congress members were, they asked her to go with them, with the kind of future promise that once they won the war and Jefferson Davis became the president, then they would come back to Washington and she would come back with them and work in the White House. She said, well, no, I don't think so. That plan really doesn't work for me. I didn't buy my way out of slavery to go back in, you know, go down to the South and be with you guys. And so she, you know, basically turned her down.

But it was shortly after that that she met Mary Lincoln and, in a competition for who would be Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley was selected and they became friends, in part because Mary Lincoln was not socially acceptable in the Washington, D.C. community. She was seen as kind of strange, a bit kind of crazy and an outsider, and this really reflected Elizabeth as well, so Elizabeth Keckley and her became close.

But they also became close because of personal tragedies. Elizabeth Keckley lost her son in the first year of the Civil War in August, 1861.

MARTIN: But he had volunteered to serve.

LUSANE: He had volunteered to serve. He - at that point, African-Americans were not allowed into the military, but he was very fair-skinned and he passed for white and he joined and he was - he ended up dying, and Mary Lincoln, of course, had been sympathetic to her. And then Willie Lincoln, one of the Lincoln's sons, died, and Elizabeth, who had become very close to Mary at that point, was there through all of that, helped to bathe him and prepare him for the funeral and was with her through that whole period.

So they became really tight, based on those experiences and based on a pretty much independent relationship with each other, not a servant to master relationship, but really two women who were in, you know, very, very harsh circumstances.

MARTIN: Now, she was not just a - not just - not that that would not have been significant enough that she was successful enough as a businesswoman, as you pointed out, but she was also an activist and started a number of charities and associations. Could you talk a little bit about that?

LUSANE: Right. This is the other egregious error, I think, in the Lincoln film - is that you would never get a sense that she was someone who had not only thought about issues of freedom, but was actively engaged in making that happen.

When the war first started, African-Americans begin to leave the plantations in the thousands, ultimately in the tens of thousands, and they knew nowhere to go but to Washington, D.C., so they begin to pour into the city. And they were called contrabands because they were basically still seen as property. These individuals who literally crawled into town with what they had on their back needed food, they needed clothing, they needed education.

So she organized what became the Contraband Association, which was to address all of those concerns. She was also instrumental in arranging for Abraham Lincoln to meet with Sojourner Truth. Right? So she really was a person who was way beyond just a dressmaker, way beyond just a friend of Mary Lincoln's, but in fact was someone who was really central and critical in the period.

MARTIN: You mentioned earlier that she wrote a book about her life that has a great deal of detail in it about her experiences. As I understand it, there was a very negative reaction to the book. It was not well received and didn't sell many copies and ended her friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln. Why is that?

LUSANE: The book came out many years after she had left the White House. When Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Lincoln found herself on very hard times, and not only did Mary not have a clear income, she was in, actually, a great deal of debt. Elizabeth and Mary concocted a scheme by which they would start selling all of these dresses, particularly to New York and to New York high society, but they would do it in such a way that Mary would not be necessarily linked into this, because it would be embarrassing.

And so their relationship continued long after Mary left the White House. The book published details not only about her experiences in the White House, but apparently some letters that had been exchanged and things that many - at least, Mary felt were confidences that had been breached. And so they begin - they had a falling out kind of over that.

MARTIN: Did that affect her life, the latter part of her life? The fallout or the negative reaction to her book?

LUSANE: Elizabeth, because she had spent a great deal of time helping Mary after Lincoln was assassinated, began to lose her business, so she was on hard times as well. At one point, though, she was able to find an academic job teaching at Wilberforce and then after she finished teaching she ended up basically in a senior home in Washington, D.C., basically kind of being cared for in her last number of years.

MARTIN: Clarence Lusane is the author of "The Black History of the White House." He was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Professor Lusane, thanks so much for joining us.

LUSANE: Thank you for having me.

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