Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House

Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House

Elizabeth Keckley
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807869642_keckley
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    Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House
    Book Description:

    Behind the Scenesis the life story of Elizabeth Keckley, a shrewd entrepreneur who, while enslaved, raised enough money to purchase freedom for herself and her son. Keckley moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a seamstress and dressmaker for the wives of influential politicians. She eventually became a close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. Several years after President Lincoln's assassination, when Mrs. Lincoln's financial situation had worsened, Keckley helped organize an auction of the former first lady's dresses, eliciting strong criticism from members of the Washington elite.Behind the Scenesis, therefore, both a slave narrative and Keckley's attempt to defend the motives behind the auction. However, the book's publication prompted an even greater public outcry, with the added racial subtext of white society's disdain for Keckley's audacity in publishing details of the Lincolns' private lives. Keckley's dressmaking business failed, the Lincoln family cut all ties with her, and she lived out her final days in a home for the indigent. Scholars have acknowledged the book's valuable account of slave life as well as its intimate view into the Lincoln White House. Biographers of the Lincolns have quoted extensively from Keckley's text.A DOCSOUTH BOOK. This collaboration between UNC Press and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library brings selected classic works from the digital library of Documenting the American South back into print. DocSouth Books uses the latest digital technologies to make these works available as downloadable e-books or print-on-demand publications. DocSouth Books are unaltered from the original publication, providing affordable and easily accessible editions to a new generation of scholars, students, and general readers.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0290-5
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-11)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 12-13)
  3. PREFACE.
    (pp. 14-17)
    ELIZABETH KECKLEY
  4. CHAPTER I. WHERE I WAS BORN.
    (pp. 18-23)

    MY 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 scene before me, some [Page 18] pleasant and others sad; and when I...

  5. CHAPTER II. GIRLHOOD AND ITS SORROWS.
    (pp. 24-28)
    ELIZABETH HOBBS

    I MUST pass rapidly over the stirring events of my early life. When I was about fourteen years old I went to live with my master’s eldest son, a Presbyterian minister. His salary was small, and he was burdened with a helpless wife, a girl that he had married in the humble walks of life. She was morbidly sensitive, and imagined that I regarded her with contemptuous feelings because she was of poor parentage. I was their only servant, and a gracious loan at that. They were not able to buy me, so my old master sought [Page 32] render...

  6. CHAPTER III. HOW I GAINED MY FREEDOM.
    (pp. 29-36)

    THE years passed and brought many changes to me, but on these I will not dwell, as I wish to hasten to the most interesting part of my story. My troubles in North Carolina were brought to an end by my unexpected return to Virginia, where I lived with Mr. Garland, who had married Miss Ann Burwell, one of my old master’s daughters. His life was not a prosperous one, and after struggling with the world for several years he left his native State, a disappointed man. He moved to St. Louis, hoping to improve his fortune in the West;...

  7. CHAPTER IV. In the Family of Senator Jefferson Davis.
    (pp. 37-41)

    THE twelve hundred dollars with which I purchased the freedom of myself and son I consented to accept only as a loan. I went to work in earnest, and in a short time paid every cent that was so kindly advanced by my lady patrons of St. Louis. All this time my husband was a source of trouble to me, and a burden. Too close occupation with my needle had its effects upon my health, and feeling exhausted with work, I determined to make a change. I had a conversation with Mr. Keckley; informed [Page 64] him that since he...

  8. CHAPTER V. MY INTRODUCTION TO MRS. LINCOLN.
    (pp. 42-47)

    EVER since arriving in Washington I had a great desire to work for the ladies of the White House, and to accomplish this end I was ready to make almost any sacrifice consistent with propriety. Work came in slowly, and I was beginning to feel very much embarrassed, for I did not know how I was to meet the bills staring me in the face. It is true, the bills were small, but then they were formidable to me, who had little or nothing to pay them with. While in this situation I called at the Ringolds, where I met...

  9. CHAPTER VI. WILLIE LINCOLN’S DEATH-BED.
    (pp. 48-55)

    MRS. LINCOLN returned to Washington in November, and again duty called me to the White House. The war was now in progress, and every day brought stirring news from the front—the front, where the Gray opposed the Blue, where flashed the bright sabre in the sunshine, where were heard the angry notes of battle, the deep roar of cannon, and the fearful rattle of musketry; where new graves were being made every day, where brother forgot a mother’s early blessing and sought the lifeblood of brother, and friend raised the deadly knife against friend. [Page 92] Oh, the front,...

  10. CHAPTER VII. WASHINGTON IN 1862-3.
    (pp. 56-61)

    IN the summer of 1862, freedmen began to flock into Washington from Maryland and Virginia. They came with a great hope in their hearts, and with all their worldly goods on their backs. Fresh from the bonds of slavery, fresh from the benighted regions of the plantation, they came to the Capital looking for liberty, and many of them not knowing it when they found it. Many good friends reached forth kind hands, but the North is not warm and impulsive. For one kind word spoken, two harsh ones were uttered; [Page 112] there was something repelling in the atmosphere,...

  11. CHAPTER VIII. CANDID OPINIONS.
    (pp. 62-66)

    OFTEN Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln discussed the relations of Cabinet officers, and gentlemen prominent in politics, in my presence. I soon learned that the wife of the President had no love for Mr. Salmon P. Chase, at that time Secretary of the Treasury. She was well versed in human character, was somewhat suspicious of those by whom she was surrounded, and often her judgment was correct. Her intuition about the sincerity of individuals was more accurate than that of her husband. She looked beyond, [Page 128] and read the reflection of action in the future. Her hostility to Mr. Chase...

  12. CHAPTER IX. BEHIND THE SCENES.
    (pp. 67-71)

    SOME of the freedmen and freedwomen had exaggerated ideas of liberty. To them it was a beautiful vision, a land of sunshine, rest and glorious promise. They flocked to Washington, and since their extravagant hopes were not realized, it was but natural that many of them should bitterly feel their disappointment. The colored people are wedded to associations, and when you destroy these you destroy half of the happiness of their lives. They make a home, and are so fond of it that they prefer it, squalid [Page 140] though it be, to the comparative ease and luxury of a...

  13. CHAPTER X. THE SECOND INAUGURATION.
    (pp. 72-80)

    MRS. LINCOLN came to my apartments one day towards the close of the summer of 1864, to consult me in relation to a dress. And here let me remark, I never approved of ladies, attached to the Presidential household, coming to my rooms. I always thought that it would be more consistent with their dignity to send for me, and let me come to them, instead of their coming to me. I may have peculiar notions about some things, and this may be regarded as one of them. No matter, I have recorded my opinion. I cannot [Page 153] forget...

  14. CHAPTER XI. THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT LINCOLN.
    (pp. 81-91)

    I HAD never heard Mr. Lincoln make a public speech, and, knowing the man so well, was very anxious to hear him. On the morning of the Tuesday after our return from City Point, Mrs. Lincoln came to my apartments, and before she drove away I asked permission to come to the White House that night and hear Mr. Lincoln speak.

    “Certainly, Lizabeth; if you take any interest in political speeches, come and listen in welcome.”

    “Thank you, Mrs. Lincoln. May I trespass [Page 175] further on your kindness by asking permission to bring a friend with me?”

    “Yes, bring...

  15. CHAPTER XII. MRS. LINCOLN LEAVES THE WHITE HOUSE.
    (pp. 92-102)

    FOR five weeks Mrs. Lincoln was confined to her room. Packing afforded quite a relief, as it so closely occupied us that we had not much time for lamentation.

    Letters of condolence were received from all parts of the country, and even from foreign potentates, but Mr. Andrew Johnson, the successor of Mr. Lincoln, never called on the widow, or even so much as wrote a line expressing sympathy for her grief and the loss of her husband. Robert called on him one day to tell him that his mother would turn the White House over to him [Page 202]...

  16. CHAPTER XIII. THE ORIGIN OF THE RIVALRY BETWEEN MR. DOUGLAS AND MR. LINCOLN.
    (pp. 103-107)

    MRS. LINCOLN from her girlhood up had an ambition to become the wife of a President. When a little girl, as I was told by one of her sisters, she was disposed to be a little noisy at times, and was self-willed. One day she was romping about the room, making more noise than the nerves of her grandmother could stand. The old lady looked over her spectacles, and said, in a commanding tone:

    “Sit down, Mary. Do be quiet. What on [Page 229] earth do you suppose will become of you if you go on this way?”

    “Oh, I...

  17. CHAPTER XIV. OLD FRIENDS.
    (pp. 108-118)

    IN order to introduce a pleasant chapter of my life, I must take a slight retrospective glance. Mrs. Ann Garland, the mistress from whom I purchased my freedom in St. Louis, had five daughters, all lovely, attractive girls. I used to take pride in dressing the two eldest, Miss Mary and Miss Carrie, for parties. Though the family labored under pecuniary embarrassment, I worked for these two young girls, and they were always able to present a good appearance in society. They were much admired, and both [Page 239] made the best matches of the season. Miss Mary married Dr....

  18. CHAPTER XV. THE SECRET HISTORY OF MRS. LINCOLN’S WARDROBE IN NEW YORK.
    (pp. 119-146)

    IN March, 1867, Mrs. Lincoln wrote to me from Chicago that, as her income was insufficient to meet her expenses, she would be obliged to give up her house in the city, and return to boarding. She said that she had struggled long enough to keep up appearances, and that the mask must be thrown aside. “I have not the means,” she wrote, “to meet the expenses of even a first-class boarding-house, and must sell out and secure cheap rooms at some place in the country. [Page 268] It will not be startling news to you, my dear Lizzie, to...

  19. APPENDIX. LETTERS FROM MRS. LINCOLN TO MRS. KECKLEY.
    (pp. 147-164)