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"I Am Well Aware that I Have Invited Criticism": Elizabeth Keckley's Voice Endures

In honor of Banned Books Month, Documenting the American South remembers Elizabeth Keckley, whose narrative Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868) has endured powerful attempts to suppress it.

Keckley was born into slavery in Virginia in 1818. While hired out to a Presbyterian minister, she was relocated for a time to Hillsborough, North Carolina, before moving with her owner to St. Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, Keckley became known as a skilled seamstress and dressmaker and eventually earned enough money to purchase her and her son's freedom in 1855. Five years later, Keckley moved to Washington, D.C., and found success as a modiste—an upscale dressmaker—for some of the capital's most famous women, including Varina Davis, wife of then senator and later Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Keckley's reputation soon earned her work with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, and the two women became close companions.

After President Lincoln's assassination, as Mrs. Lincoln struggled to pay her debts, Keckley continued to be the widow's most trusted advisor and aided her in schemes to raise money. Keckley herself began to struggle with finances, however, and decided to write a memoir of her life in slavery and in the White House.

This memoir, Behind the Scenes, was received with sensational scorn and scandal. The book contains reprints of intimate correspondence between Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln, although these were included against Keckley's wishes. Keckley's primary goal was to protect Mrs. Lincoln's reputation as well as her own. In her 1868 preface, she writes of her narrative, "I am well aware that I have invited criticism" (p. xi) and goes on to explain: "If I have betrayed confidence in anything I have published, it has been to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world. A breach of trust—if breach it can be called—of this kind is always excusable. My own character, as well as the character of Mrs. Lincoln, is at stake, since I have been intimately associated with that lady in the most eventful periods of her life. I have been her confidante, and if evil charges are laid at her door, they also must be laid at mine, since I have been a party to all her movements" (p. xiv).

But many viewed the work as a trespass against both personal and social mores. Mary Todd Lincoln felt so betrayed by Keckley that the former first lady terminated her relationship with the author completely. The president's son, Robert Lincoln, found the work offensive and inappropriate and lobbied successfully for the book's suppression, eventually even halting its publication. Others objected to a black servant writing so candidly about the events and people in the white household she had served. In the early twentieth century, when Behind the Scenes was eventually reprinted, some critics even challenged, although unsuccessfully, Keckley's authorship.

Plagued by public abuse as well as Mrs. Lincoln's rejection and unable to profit from her memoir, Keckley returned to her seamstress work. She found few white patrons, however, and eventually accepted a position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Arts. Keckley would go on to represent Wilberforce at the Chicago World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893. She eventually returned to Washington and died nearly penniless in 1907.

Behind the Scenes is part of DocSouth's "North American Slave Narratives" collection, which includes books and articles that document the individual and collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. The narrative is also included in "The North Carolina Experience" collection, a group of books, letters, reports, posters, artifacts, songs, and oral histories about North Carolina, its people, and its history.

Jennifer L. Larson