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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.

9 Comments on this Post

  1. Good story! I had wondered during the movie if she was a real figure or a composite, but didn’t have a chance to look it up.

  2. Ruby Dee earned an Emmy Nomination for playing her in 1998, in GORE VIDAL’S LINCOLN

  3. I always liked Gloria Reuben, since her days on ER. Good to see her on the big screen.

  4. I saw Lincoln at a packed Sunday showing here in Houston last night. The scene between Lincoln and Keckly is one of the most beautifully shot sequences in the film and there is a lot of those to choose from. Gorgeous!

  5. ChrisFlick

    Mary T. and Lizzie K. is the name of a play opening in Washington DC after the new year. It can only benefit by the attention being paid to the movie. And yes Ruby Dee was wonderful in that miniseries, which also by the way provided the crucial context for the reception scene between Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. I think without having seen Gore Vidal’s Lincoln I could not possibly have appreciated that scene as much as I did in Kushner’s Lincoln.

  6. The movie, for me, was not the best I’ve ever seen. Far from it. I do not simply admire the passing of the 13th Amendment, I am ashamed that our country even had to pass it. You can put a band-aid on a scratch, but you’ll never be able to hide the scar. You can cover it up with makeup, but you’ll always know that it is there.

    Personally, I’d rather have seen a film that began with Lincoln’s assassination and spanned the next few years when Mary Todd (played by Mare Winningham or Marcia Gay Harden, not Sally Field) is dirt broke and asks Keckly to help sell items on her estate. Enough attention has been paid to Lincoln as a central character in history, but very little time has been spent with Mary Todd….such a shame.

  7. Personally, I thought she was given no tribute in the film. Gloria Rueben certainly knows how to express emotion, but she is there mostly as a sort of moral compass and a face to look sad. Her scene with Lincoln is the most awkwardly scripted in the film, and she is given next to nothing to do. Because this is a film primarily about Lincoln passing the 13th amendment, it isn’t a deal breaker that black people are sort of pushed to the sidelines in the film, depicted as sad, idle onlookers waiting for white people to free them, but it is unfortunate that much of the humanity of this story is lost. It is a great film about politics and Lincoln, but not really a great film about the times. Kushner’s script, while rich, is too narrow.

  8. *that time.

  9. alan of montreal

    Anthony Breznican at EW highlighted Gloria Reuben as a “For Your Consideration” for supporting actress. She seems to be experiencing a bit of a career comeback between this and Tina Fey’s next film.

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