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Reviving the Memory of Lincoln Seamstress Elizabeth Keckly

One of the most enjoyable things about Spielberg/Kushner’s Lincoln is how subtle much of it is. You’d never really know much about the character Gloria Reuben plays unless you were deep into Lincoln history. Her name was Elizabeth Keckly and she was famous in her own right. Robert McNamara writes up the burial honor given to Keckly back in 2010.

Elizabeth Keckly was a most unlikely figure, a slave who managed to purchase her own freedom, worked as a seamstress in the nation’s capital, and, believe it or not, became a trusted friend of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

An eyewitness to history, Keckly wrote about events she witnessed in the White House, including the death of young Willie Lincoln, in a memoir published in the years following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Astonishingly, Keckly appeared in the news in the past week as her grave, long thought to be lost, had been discovered in a cemetery in Maryland.

Keckly died in 1907 and was buried in a Washington, D.C. cemetery that was bought by developers in the 1950s. Thousands of graves, including Keckly’s, were moved to a cemetery in Maryland, and a recent search of records led researchers to Keckly’s grave, which was unmarked.

Keckly’s book, which apparently caused some upset to Mary Lincoln, details her four years in the White House. But it also details her life as a slave – that is, naturally, where the true horror lies. She writes of being just four years old and put in charge of an infant. When the baby falls out of the crib, Keckly tried to pick her up with a shovel (being four years old, how would she have known?). She is viciously beaten. She says it was the first beating but it wasn’t the last. That line is echoed in the film.  Keckly is an amazing historical figure and paid great tribute in the film. These details have been laid out like breadcrumbs for anyone who is curious enough to go looking for them.  Read excerpts here.

Meanwhile, Keckly was finally given a proper burial.