Brown, Hallie Q.
|MADAM ELIZABETH KECKLEY -- 1840-1900|
Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave. To her came a full measure of the horrors and torture of slavery. In spite of this her spirit was unbroken and the serene calm, so characteristic of her rare personality was unruffled.
It is said that every cloud has a silver lining. Many years passed ere Madam Keckley caught sight of the gleam. After years of arduous labor, wherein by means of her skillful needle she supported the entire impoverished family to which she belonged, she finally realized her true commercial value. With the realization she borrowed the necessary money, purchased her freedom and by dint of great concentration of effort repaid the debt.
Although bitterly opposed to the great injustice of slavery, nevertheless, in speaking of those earlier days, Madam Keckley never failed to recognize the true value of the friendship she had formed with those by whom she was held in bondage.
At the time of her emancipation Madam Keckley was living in St. Louis, Mo. Soon after, however, she moved to Washington, D. C. where her skill as a modiste was soon recognized.
Although her patronage was largely among the congressional circle, it had long been her ambition to serve "The first lady of the land." After a time even this was realized when she became la modiste for Mrs. Lincoln.
Situated as she was "behind the scenes" it was possible for her to learn much not only about the Lincoln family but also about the affairs of state which were generally hidden from public view.
She became a staunch friend and confidant of Mrs. Lincoln and was greatly respected by the rest of the family. As time passed by and the bonds of friendship were deepened Madam Keckly became a participant in all their joys and sorrows. She prepared the President's wife for gala and formal functions, comforted her on the occasion of the death of her son and of her husband and later when Mrs. Lincoln was in adverse circumstances she continued to be her friend through all her adversities. When the two were forced to part they corresponded regularly.
The above period of her life is very vividly portrayed in "Behind the Scenes" a book published by Madam Keckley in 1868. This book was censored by the authorities hence could not receive the circulation it deserved. In closing her preface Madam Keckley says, "Had Mrs. Lincoln's act never become public property, I should not have published to the world the secret chapters of her life. I am not the special champion of the widow of our lamented President; the reader of the pages will discover that I have written with the utmost frankness in regard to her--have exposed her faults as well as given credit for honest motives. I wish the world to judge her as she is, free from the exaggeration of praise or scandal."
Mrs. Lincoln had given Madam Keckley several souvenirs belonging to herself and the President. These were later donated to Wilberforce University and were lost when the College was destroyed by fire on the night of Lincoln's assassination. The motive which prompted her to do this was not merely that of sympathy but also of tender association. Her son had attended Wilberforce up to the time he enlisted in the army in the service of which he lost his life.
Later Madam Keckley went to Wilberforce as director of Domestic Art.
Her exceptional personality, dignity of bearing, graciousness and love for youth made an abiding impression.
The tender expression of sympathy, cheery smiles and final charge when departing for Philadelphia are now cherished memories.
Several years later we met again in Washington where she spent her declining years living in retrospect the events of her remarkable and romantic career.
Women of America, A darker type!
Thy night of traffic, scourge and gloom,
Hath now become the op'ning day--
A rosy, bright, effulgent noon.
Grim Darkness hides his face away!
Women from every state,
A stronger type!
From homely scenes with haste we come--
Yet think of distant fields to roam--
Builders of wastes, with honors won,
Makers, keepers of hearth and home.
Women of worth and power,
A Nobler type!
Thy field doth lie from sea to sea.
Go forth in all humility,
The weary, fetter'd heart make free
Through Christ to all eternity.