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Elizabeth Keckley was many things in her lifetime–a slave, a mother, a dressmaker, a free business owner, a White House regular, a companion of Mary Lincoln, and a Christian. Her book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, spins a tale of tribulations and perseverance.

It’s been said that “the greatest miracle of the Reformation is that enslaved Africans…imprisoned in a foreign land and surrounded by hostile wilderness, heard with clarity the learned oracles of Christ, [and] were spiritually set free.” If the black church is indeed a miracle, then Keckley’s life is a beautiful example of how slavery could never overcome the enduring faith of those redeemed by God in Christ.

Elizabeth Keckley, 37 Years a Slave

Elizabeth Keckley was born in 1818 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. She belonged to the household of a Colonel A. Burwell. Her book is filled with tragic scenes of her early years. The most touching of these accounts is her father’s separation from her family at the age of eight. She tells it best:

Mr. Burwell came to the cabin…and as gently as possible informed my parents that they must part…the announcement fell upon the little circle in that rude-log cabin like a thunderbolt. I can remember the scene as if it were but yesterday; –how my father cried out against the cruel separation; his last kiss; his wild straining of my mother to his bosom; the solemn prayer to Heaven; the tears and sobs–the fearful anguish of broken hearts.

The last kiss, the last goodbye; and he, my father, was gone, gone forever […] Deep as was the distress of my mother in parting with my father, her sorrow did not screen her from insult. My old mistress said to her: “Stop your nonsense; there is no necessity for you putting on airs. Your husband isn’t the only slave that has been sold from his family”…To these unfeeling words my mother made no reply.[1]

American chattel slavery became a self-reproducing labor-force following the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807. Families were parted and herded across the southern states; Keckley’s family was no exception. She knew the bitterness of a forced separation. And she was the victim to other brutalities, including beatings (she describes the torture of a rawhide whip) and rape (Keckley was the mother of a mixed race son conceived without her consent).

Elizabeth Keckley, Unfettered and Free

Freedom came for Elizabeth Keckley when she entered the household of Mr. Garland, the husband of a Burwell daughter. Garland was poor and seeing Keckley’s dressmaking skills, permitted her to earn money for the household as a seamstress. Her talent soon earned Garland the patronage of Virginia’s wealthiest women.

But 37 years of slavery was too long for Keckley. Anxious for freedom, she boldly asked the Garland family for a purchase price for her and her son. To her surprise, a figure was given: $1,200. An audacious Keckley shared the desire for freedom with some patrons and found a sympathetic ear. A Mrs. Le Bourgois, decided to assist. She raised and loaned Keckley the amount for her freedom. The woman and her son embraced emancipation on June 27, 1855.  Keckley remained in Virginia for five additional years and worked to repay her loan.

Elizabeth Keckley, 4 Years in the White House

Elizabeth Keckley left Virginia for Washington, D.C. in spring of 1860. By November of that year, she was the independent owner of a dressmaking business. Keckley’s talent was noticed. She hired assistants, and was soon patronized by elite Washingtonians.

Keckley was recommended to Mary Lincoln in 1861, just before Abraham Lincoln’s first presidential inauguration. In no time, the First Lady was added to her list of clients and Keckley became recognized as Mary Lincoln’s personal dressmaker. She grow intimately acquainted with the Lincoln family, and was there to console Mary at the death of her son Willie, and at the assassination of her husband.

Of the latter, she writes this: “while the body of her husband was being borne in solemn state from the Atlantic to the broad prairies of the West, [Mrs. Lincoln] was weeping with her fatherless children in her private chamber. She denied admittance to almost every one, and I was her only companion, except her children, in the days of her great sorrow.” [2] Elizabeth Keckley was a woman acquainted with pain; surely, she consoled Mary Lincoln with the comfort she herself had received in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Elizabeth Keckley Speaks of God’s Word

Keckley’s book conveys an eventful life filled with twists and turns. The focus is her relationship with Mary Lincoln, but God is not absent in her story. In one section, Keckley writes of her witness to the immense power of God’s word:

In 1863, the Confederates were flushed with victory, and sometimes it looked as if the proud flag of the Union…must yield half its nationality to the tri-barred flag…These were sad, anxious days to Mr. Lincoln, and those who saw the man in privacy only could tell how much he suffered. One day he came into the room where I was fitting a dress on Mrs. Lincoln. His step was slow and heavy…he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands […] He reached forth one of his long arms, and took a small Bible…opened the pages of the holy book, and soon was absorbed in reading them. A quarter of an hour passed, and on glancing at the sofa, the face of the President seemed more cheerful…The change was so marked that I could not but wonder at…what book of the Bible afforded so much comfort to the reader.

Making a search for a missing article an excuse, I walked gently around the sofa, and looking into the open book, I discovered that Mr. Lincoln was reading that divine comforter, Job […] A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity. Ponder it, O ye scoffers at God’s Holy Word, and then hang your heads for the very shame! [3]

Keckley testifies to the comforting power of God’s living word and she sneers at Bible scoffers! Her words impress me. They bring to mind Acts 13:41 and, if nothing else, hint at a deep respect for God’s Word. The scenario she describes speaks of Abraham Lincoln. Yet the Bible, and not the President, is the star of her tale. Lincoln is dejected and it is God who sustains through the means of his Word. He is present and able.

Elizabeth Keckley’s faith, and those of chattel slavery, testifies of the love that preserves all those predestined for adoption before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-6). Toil, rape, whippings, and forced familial rifts could not overcome their view of a present God.

I’m reminded here of the words of Sojourner Truth: “I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me!” They called to Jesus and he heard, for “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” (Romans 8:35)?

 

[1] Keckley, Elizabeth, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, (Oxford University Press: New York, 1988, Reprinted by the Schombury Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women, Edited by Henry Gates Jr.), 23-24.
[2] Ibid, 191-192.
[3] Ibid, 120.

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