African-American author, dressmaker, and former slave Elizabeth Keckley is best known for her memoir, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, originally published in 1868. As the fashion designer, seamstress, and closest confidante of MARY TODD LINCOLN during the Civil War, Keckley resided in the White House and observed much of the Lincolns’ private lives. Although she traces her own personal history in her book, she also focuses her gaze on her revelations about the Lincolns, especially Todd Lincoln. She also includes an expose of Todd Lincoln’s disastrously ill-conceived plan to sell her dresses and other finery in 1867.
Despite Keckley’s mission to “place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world, ” Keckley’s narration of her life is fascinating in its own right, as it portrays the determination of an oppressed woman who achieved her most ambitious goal (Keckley 1988, xiv). Although her creation and leadership of the CONTRABAND RELIEF ASSOCIATION (later renamed the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldiers’ Relief Association) rarely receives more than passing mention in most accounts of her life, her labors on behalf of the freed slaves add a vital dimension to the understanding of this extraordinary woman.
Born a slave in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, Elizabeth Hobbs was first owned by the Burwell family. While an adolescent, a white man whom Keckley never names, repeatedly