Elizabeth Keckley, portrayed in this presentation by storyteller and actor Marlene Rivero, is best remembered today as the seamstress, friend, and confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. In fact, she was that and much more: a highly accomplished, multi-dimensional person with a wide range of experience and a strong sense of self-reliance.
Keckley’s autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, describes her experiences of earning money with her hands as a seamstress to support her white slaveholder and his household of seventeen people. She gained a reputation as an excellent tailor and dressmaker. She writes,
“While I was working so hard that others might live in comparative comfort, and move in those circles of society to which their birth gave them entrance, the thought often occurred to me whether I was really worth my salt or not; then perhaps the lips curled with a bitter sneer.”
After securing her freedom, Keckley used those same hands to work for lower pay than white seamstresses typically received. As an ex-slave, she was forced to make concessions on her prices to obtain work from white middle- and upper-class ladies. Although it was exceedingly rare for African American women to establish and own businesses at that time, Keckley did exactly that, eventually employing more than twenty other women.
This program is generously funded by the Illinois Humanities Road Scholar Program.