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

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(L-R) Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly, Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abraham Lincoln and Joy Jones as Ivy in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Mary T. & Lizzy K.
Scott Suchman
(L-R) Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly, Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abraham Lincoln and Joy Jones as Ivy in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Mary T. & Lizzy K.

Mary T. & Lizzy K., the world-premiere show now playing at Arena Stage in southwest D.C., explores the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her personal dressmaker, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. Playwright and director Tazewell Thompson points out, the two made for a rather unlikely pair.

"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," he says.

Indeed, Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in 1818, in Dinwiddie, Va. In 1855, 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.

"A thriving business," Thompson says. "She made clothes for the top women in society in D.C., including Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Robert E. Lee!"

But in 1861, when Keckley met Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, the seamstress became the sole designer and creator of the first lady's wardrobe, which can be seen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator of women's political history, says it's believed Mrs. Lincoln wore the dress in the winter social season, 1861-1862.

"It's purple velvet, and it's really a skirt with two bodices," Graddy explains. "So there is a daytime bodice with a higher neck, longer sleeves; it's got beautiful mother of pearl buttons up the front with a lace collar.

"And then as you're getting ready for evening, you can put on an evening bodice, which has a much lower neck, shorter sleeves," she adds.

The evening bodice is far more revealing, as it shows off a good deal of the shoulders. Graddy says that style was very en vogue at the time.

"But Mary Lincoln was fond of a low-cut top," she says. "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!"

Again, though, you must remember: Elizabeth Keckley was more than just Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker. She was also her friend.

"Let's not kid ourselves that it was an equal relationship," Graddy says. "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 before they went for dinner [she] would brush Mr. Lincoln's hair. He called her 'Miss Lizbeth,' and would ask her to smooth down his bristles."

Clearly, the Lincolns cared for Keckley, and 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.

"Even though you probably don'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," says Sylvia Robinson who runs the Emergence Community Arts Collective.

The non-profit is located in a big brick building at 733 Euclid Street NW. 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.

"That organization was responsible for taking women and children off the street," Robinson explains. "And it would house them and clothe them and educate them."

But here's where our story takes an unfortunate twist.

The memoir that brought misunderstandings

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 — ultimately, she died practically penniless.

Here's what happened. In 1867 the now-widowed Mary Todd Lincoln was hoping to raise some money, since she believed she was impoverished. So she asked Mrs. Keckley to join her on a trip to New York, so they could secretly sell some of her old dresses.

"Mrs. Keckley was sort of a go-between with these brokers that Mary Lincoln was trying to engage to sell clothing," Lisa Kathleen Graddy explains.

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: "The Old Clothes Scandal."

The affair prompted Keckley to write her memoir, "Behind the scenes; or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House," because, as Graddy says, "she's hoping to paint Mrs. Lincoln in a better light. She feels Mary Lincoln's misunderstood."

Basically, Keckley had the kindest of intentions. But once her book came out it was viewed as a ruthless, indiscrete tell-all that was anything but kind.

"It actually generated more bad publicity for Mary Lincoln," Graddy says, "and Mary Lincoln never spoke to her again. She felt betrayed by someone that she had called her dearest friend."

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.

Honoring a woman of strength and determination

Despite that sad ending, says Graddy, "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."

Which is why, 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.

"[Keckley] has an extremely intrepid spirit," she says. "She never gives up. She climbed her way out of slavery to become a superstar. I just don't know how you do that!"

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

Mary T. and Lizzy K. runs through April 28 at Arena Stage.

[Music: "The Closet" by Aaron Zigman from Sex & The City - Original Motion Picture Score]

Photos: Mary T. & Lizzy K.


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