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

223 pages3 hours


“I have often been asked to write my life . . . it has been an eventful one,” wrote Elizabeth Keckley in her autobiography Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. First published in 1868, it is one of the most candid and poignant slave narratives. It also looks beyond Emancipation and is, in the words of historian William L. Andrews, “the first major text to represent the interests and aims of this nascent African American leadership class in the postwar era.” Born into slavery, Keckley endured untold hardships but she eventually purchased her freedom in the 1850s. Self-reliant and enterprising, Keckley used her dressmaking skills to set up a successful business in Civil War-era Washington, DC, where she became the modiste of choice for many of the city’s most fashionable women. Her talents and warmth led her to become seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln and confidante to both Mary and Abraham Lincoln. After President Lincoln’s assassination, Keckley became caretaker to the former First Lady, whose financial troubles mounted and mental health declined. In an effort to buoy their financial fortunes and restore Mary Lincoln’s battered public image, Keckley wrote Behind the Scenes. Much to her surprise, it was labeled as "treacherous" and ended her relationship with Mary Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckley is now remembered as an entrepreneur, fashion designer, community activist, educator, writer, as well as friend to Mary Todd Lincoln.

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