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Behind the Scenes: or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House - Elizabeth Keckley,  William L. Andrews (Introduction) This slim book, written by Elizabeth Keckley, onetime modiste of Mary Todd Lincoln during her husband's tenure in the White House, and subsequently her confidante, is a testament to a most remarkable woman. Keckley, who was born a slave in Virginia in 1818, generally speaks very openly about her early life, including the beatings she had suffered at the hands of her master and a friend of her master's family, who sought, in their eyes, to humble her spirit. What I found remarkable is that when both men failed in their object to "break" her, is that each man made plain to Keckley that they would never strike her again and would treat her with respect. And they proved true to their word. Keckley also gives brief mention of the 4-year relationship she was compelled to have with another white man, which led to the birth of her only child, George, in 1841. (George, after studying at Wilberforce College in Ohio, joined the Union Army shortly after war commenced in 1861, passing as a white man. He was killed in battle soon thereafter.)

Several years later, after acquiring remarkable skill and high reputation as a dressmaker in Missouri, Keckley (her married name --- her husband, upon their first meeting, had professed himself to be a freeman; after their marriage, however, it turned out that he was a slave and something of a neer-do-well, being overly fond of drink --- he and Elizabeth soon become estranged, and he died sometime after Elizabeth had left Missouri) worked mightily to earn the $1200 she needed to buy freedom for herself and her son. This was achieved in the mid-1850s.

The chapters in the book dealing with Keckley's arrival in Washington in 1860 to set up her own dressmaking business and her time spent with President Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd are among the most engaging, entertaining, and eye-opening. Here the reader gets a glimpse of the Lincolns as they really were.

After President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Keckley expands, at some length, on the privations his wife and 2 remaining sons had to contend with. (Unlike today, former Presidents and their families were accorded no government pension. Indeed, it has only been in the last 60 years that pensions were established for former Presidents.)


The value of this book lies in the fact that it was one of the first of the immediate post-Civil War era written by an African American Woman, who, by dint of hard work and determination, managed not only to buy her freedom and establish her own dressmaking business, but to earn the respect of several prominent Washington politicos (and their wives) of the era by virtue of her talent. That's why I give it 5 STARS. This book is a keeper.

(This book also has footnotes, listed in the "Exploratory Notes" section, which help to reveal or make clear to the present-day reader places and personalities who played a part --- direct or indirect --- in Keckley's life.)