Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly

Mary Lincoln’s close relationship with African American seamstress and advocate Elizabeth Keckly is one of the most fascinating aspects of both women’s stories. This letter sheds some light on the personal and racial complexity of their friendship. Mary is writing to Assistant Secretary of the Treasury George Harrington to seek a job for Keckly and speaks highly of her skills, deeming her “very industrious.”

Yet the racial divide between the two women is also evident. After praising Keckly, Mary adds the caveat “although colored.” She also assures Harrington that Keckly is “very unobtrusive.” These comments expose the vestiges of racism Mary would have learned at a very young age growing up in a family of enslavers, or she could be playing to the racist ideas she assumes Harrington holds himself. Regardless, they reveal the limitations of white perceptions of Black equality even between friends.

MS-1863.03.20 – MTL trying to find a job for Keckly

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Letter Transcription

Mary Lincoln to Lee Harrington, 20 March 1863

Executive Mansion

Hon Lee Harrington

Dear Sir

I am under many obligations to you, for your frequent kindnesses to me, and will only request you to add another name, in the place of Ellen Sheahan, & will promise, not to trouble you again

The woman, who is most estimable, is named Elizabeth Keckley; although colored, is very industrious, & has just had an interview with Gov Chase, who says he will see you & I am sure, it rests with you.  She is very unobtrusive, and will perform her duties, faithfully.  I am making a vain request of you.  And I will not again trouble you.

Please insert her name in place of the other.  I presume you will not object, to her not entering upon her duties, until the middle of April, you see Mr Harrington, I am calculating on your kindly agreeing to my proposal

Very Respectfully

Mrs Lincoln.

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