From Slave To White House Designer: The Amazing Tale Of Elizabeth Keckley (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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From Slave To White House Designer: The Amazing Tale Of Elizabeth Keckley

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and this week we are talking design. So far this hour we've learned the secrets behind one of the District's most ubiquitous architectural features, we've checked out innovations designed to get students to go green and in just a bit we'll hear about the first ever international design festival to be held right here in Washington, D.C.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:30
First though, we're going to tip our hat to a master of design from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a master of clothing design who created couture for the creme de la creme of Washington society, including the first lady of the United States.

MS. SAMEERAH LUQMAAN-HARRIS

00:00:45
"Listen to me, I never have, nor never will send you forward without you looking your most extraordinary best. After all, you represent me, as well."

SHEIR

00:00:57
This is a scene from Mary T. & Lizzy K., the world-premiere play now running at Arena Stage in southwest D.C.

LUQMAAN-HARRIS

00:01:03
"Imagine for yourself, box pleats of gold taffeta, your bodice side drapes and back tabs in woven gold and copper stripes brocade--"

SHEIR

00:01:14
And this here is our designer extraordinaire, Lizzy K., a.k.a. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, the personal dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln.

MS. NAOMI JACOBSON

00:01:22
"The dress is going to be beautiful."

LUQMAAN-HARRIS

00:01:24
"Already is, even with pins holding it together."

SHEIR

00:01:28
The play explores the relationship these women developed during Mrs. Lincoln's time in the White House. And as playwright and director Tazewell Thompson points out, the two made for a rather unlikely pair.

MR. TAZEWELL THOMPSON

00:01:38
There was something so compelling and so complex and so unbelievable that during the 1860s, during the Civil War, that there would be this close and unique friendship between a former slave and the first lady of the land.

SHEIR

00:01:56
Indeed, Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in 1818, in Dinwiddie, Va. In 1852, she bought her and her son's freedom for $1,200. Eventually she made her way to D.C., where she opened her own dressmaking business.

THOMPSON

00:02:10
A thriving business. She made clothes for the top women of society in D.C., including Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Robert E. Lee.

SHEIR

00:02:21
But in 1861, when Keckley met Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, the seamstress became the sole designer and creator of the first lady's wardrobe. And you can see an item from this wardrobe…

MS. LISA KATHLEEN GRADDY

00:02:32
She made this dress for Mrs. Lincoln. We believe it was worn in the winter social season, 1861-1862.

SHEIR

00:02:38
…at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of women's political history, can tell you all about it.

GRADDY

00:02:46
It's purple velvet, and it's really a skirt with two bodices. So there is a daytime bodice with a higher neck, longer sleeves. It's got beautiful mother of pearl buttons up the front, a little lace collar. Then as you're getting ready for evening, you can put on an evening bodice, which has a much lower neck, shorter sleeves.

SHEIR

00:03:06
It seems to show a lot of skin.

GRADDY

00:03:08
This is popular at the time, but Mary Lincoln was fond of a low-cut top. And there's a story that one time Mrs. Lincoln was wearing a dress with a low-cut bodice and a long train. And her husband remarked that she looked very nice, but the cat might be better if there was more of the tail up top.

SHEIR

00:03:26
Again, though, you have to remember Elizabeth Keckley was more than just Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker. She was also her friend.

GRADDY

00:03:32
You know, let's not kid ourselves that it's an equal relationship. But it's a very intimate thing to create clothes for somebody. And she had a relationship with the president and his children and frequently would, you know, brush Mr. Lincoln's hair. He called her Miss Lizbeth, and would ask her to smooth down his bristles.

SHEIR

00:03:52
Clearly, the Lincolns cared for Keckley. And they donated generously when, in 1862, she reached out to struggling former slaves by founding the Contraband Relief Association. In doing so, she was actually joining a network of highly-educated black women doing the same kind of thing.

MS. SYLVIA ROBINSON

00:04:07
Well, even though you probably didn't hear a lot about it because they were still black women and they were still not talked about prominently, this was a whole movement of reintegrating a whole new people into the society.

SHEIR

00:04:19
Sylvia Robinson runs the Emergence Community Arts Collective, a non-profit located in a big brick building at 733 Euclid Street Northwest. It's actually the same building that once housed the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children, which Elizabeth Keckley helped found in 1863.

ROBINSON

00:04:36
And that organization was responsible for taking women and children off the street. And it would house them and clothe them and educate them.

SHEIR

00:04:43
But here's where our story takes an unfortunate twist. Despite Keckley's many successes, her liberation from slavery, her social activism, her position as private dressmaker to the First Lady of the United States…

SHEIR

00:04:57
It's my understanding that she died penniless?

ROBINSON

00:05:01
She did.

SHEIR

00:05:02
Here's what happened. It's 1867, okay. And the now-widowed Mary Todd Lincoln is hoping to raise some money.

GRADDY

00:05:08
She believes that she's impoverished and she's trying to raise money to take care of herself and her family.

SHEIR

00:05:13
And so, says Smithsonian curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy, Mrs. Lincoln asks Mrs. Keckley to join her on a trip to New York, so they can secretly sell some of her old dresses.

GRADDY

00:05:23
Mrs. Keckley was sort of a go-between with these brokers that Mary Lincoln was trying to engage to sell clothing.

SHEIR

00:05:31
But word of the endeavor got out and Mrs. Lincoln was severely criticized for, A, trying to unload her possessions and, B, trying to do it on the sly. In fact, the criticism was so harsh that the whole affair eventually earned a nickname.

GRADDY

00:05:45
The Old Clothes Scandal. And it actually prompts Mrs. Keckley to write her memoir.

SHEIR

00:05:50
Titled, "Behind The Scenes," or "Thirty Years a Slave And Four Years in the White House."

GRADDY

00:05:55
Because she's hoping to paint Mrs. Lincoln in a better light. She feels Mary Lincoln's misunderstood.

SHEIR

00:06:00
Basically, Keckley has the kindest of intentions. But once her book comes out, it's viewed as a ruthless, indiscrete tell-all that's anything but kind.

GRADDY

00:06:10
It actually generated more bad publicity for Mary Lincoln. And Mary Lincoln never spoke to her again. She felt betrayed by someone that she had called her dearest friend.

SHEIR

00:06:19
After the book, Keckley's clientele basically vanished. She managed to land a university teaching gig and organize a fashion exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. But it wasn't long before she found herself destitute. So she returned to Washington, D.C., and took refuge at, of all places, the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. And, in 1907, that's where she died.

SHEIR

00:06:46
That is so tragic.

GRADDY

00:06:46
It's very sad. It's really very sad.

SHEIR

00:06:49
But despite that sad ending, says Lisa Kathleen Graddy…

GRADDY

00:06:53
Nothing can take away the fact that this woman of incredible determination purchased her own freedom and that of her son and established an incredible business in Washington, D.C., became a philanthropist and the confidante of the first lady of the United States. That's an incredible move from being a slave in Dinwiddie, Va.

SHEIR

00:07:15
Which is why, back at Arena Stage, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, the actress portraying Elizabeth Keckley in Mary T. & Lizzy K., says she feels so honored to be playing this role.

LUQMAAN-HARRIS

00:07:26
She has an extremely intrepid spirit. She never gives up. She climbed her way out of slavery to become a superstar. I just don't know how you do that.

SHEIR

00:07:40
But, somehow, Mrs. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley did it all, weaving together strength, determination and prodigious talent to fashion a truly extraordinary life.

SHEIR

00:07:55
Mary T. and Lizzy K. runs through April 28 at Arena Stage. To see photos from the production, along with sketches of some of the costumes, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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