In 1972, I was fortunate enough to perform the role of Elizabeth Keckley in a Broadway play called Look Away. It was a two-character piece, and I played opposite Geraldine Page, who took the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln.
It was very interesting to see the life Ms. Keckley lived in that time. She was a seamstress, but she was so talented that she was called a modiste, a term reserved for the most fashionable dressmakers. She made clothes for prominent Southerners, including the wife of General Robert E. Lee. But her great dream was to make clothes for Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln.
Before she could achieve any of this, however, Elizabeth Keckley had to purchase her own freedom. She was a slave, though such an excellent seamstress that her master thought she would run away. She said that she would purchase not only her own freedom with the money she made sewing on her own time, but also her son's freedom.
And I wonder, what did slaves like Keckley think? What they must have thought when someone who purportedly owned him or her, said, "Yes, I will sell you for $2,000." Was freedom so dear that he or she would willingly give up days and nights, years?
I recently spoke with Dr. Julianne Malveaux, an economist and president of Bennett College, and she explained just how much freedom meant to some slaves.
Dr. Malveaux questioned. "Where did they get that money from?" Then answered, "Well, you usually had Sunday off, but for those who had a fire in their bellies, it was a day of work. They might make a dollar. They might make a dollar and a half."
Elizabeth Keckley, rather than running away, bought her own freedom and her son's freedom sewing. How many stitches did it take? How many pieces of fabric were moistened by her tears?
Keckley did achieve her dream, and went beyond freeing herself and her son to not just working for Mary Todd Lincoln, but befriending her.
The two women liked each other, they were both tough-minded and they both lost their sons to the Civil War. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the two of them gathered clothes and food to bring to the newly freed slaves.
But after President Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Todd Lincoln was left without the pension she deserved. And as Dr. Malveaux describes her, Mrs. Lincoln had been "somewhat of a shopaholic who owned hundreds of pairs of gloves."
However, she couldn't afford to employ her friend Elizabeth Keckley any longer. After she was let go, Ms. Keckley wrote an autobiography called "Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House." The book caused a stir because it exposed some inside relationships in the White House and also exposed the truth about Mrs. Lincoln's finances.
I know that there is a sort of madness and sickness going around that will tell young people, "You can't do it." That's why I'm keen that people know the lives of people like Elizabeth Keckley, who made it in the worst of circumstances.
Dr. Malveaux recently wrote a book, called Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History that talks about Mrs. Keckley, and also others like her. It's not just about economics, but also about personal history, about love really. I would encourage you to read it. You'll be pleased to have this book, and the story of the likes of Elizabeth Keckley, those who have paid for your freedom, in your mind.
Maya Angelou as excerpted from the Black History Month Special 2012, discussing the Civil Rights Movement.
Copyright © 2012 Maya Angelou's Black History Month Special. All Rights Reserved. RCW Media Productions, Inc.