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Memoirs of enslaved Hillsborough woman enrich understanding of history

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Elizabeth Keckley's portrait covers the front of "The Elizabeth Keckley Reader" by Smith McKoy. Photo courtesy of Eno Publishers.

Long-time academic researcher and consultant Sheila Smith McKoy first read the 1868 memoir of Hillsborough resident Elizabeth Keckley when she was an undergraduate English student at N.C. State University.

The memoir, "Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House" details Keckley's life as an enslaved woman in the Burwell family households in Hillsborough and Virginia, her fight for freedom and eventual success as a seamstress and dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln.

In 1855, Keckley bought freedom for herself and her son and continued to work as a seamstress into the spring of 1860, when she began to work in the White House.

Since her first reading, Smith McKoy served as the editor of two texts on the historic — yet rarely discussed — first paid Black employee in the White House and other prominent women of the late-19th century. 

“Her story, like many stories, enriches our limited understanding of history because it hasn’t been the primary way in which people have been educated,” Smith McKoy said. 

She will discuss Keckley’s story at Mt. Bright Missionary Baptist Church in Hillsborough on Feb. 24 as the second event of a two-part lecture series focusing on the narratives of enslaved people at the Burwell School, a historical property that once belonged to the Burwell family, who enslaved Keckley and many others.

Also a part of the series is retired UNC professor William L. Andrews, who spoke on Keckley’s story on Jan. 13. Andrews said he discovered Keckley when he began researching the history of African American autobiographies, something he has studied for over 40 years.

Andrews said that Keckley's story represents the idea of freedom, and that people should have access to the same opportunities, regardless of the color of their skin. 

“That’s the ideal of America,” Andrews said. “But at the same time, you see in the slave narratives how much slavery could pervert the people who practiced it and turn them into the most despicable human beings you can imagine.”

Smith McKoy said that it’s important to recognize that these narratives are a part of U.S. history and without careful study and understanding of first-hand accounts of slavery, it is very difficult to move forward and reckon with the present. 

“I think it’s critical that we keep these narratives at the forefront, particularly at a time in our country when the facts of enslavement, slavery, colonization in our own history are being undermined for political reasons,” she said.

Elizabeth Woodman, whose company published Smith McKoy’s “The Elizabeth Keckley Reader,” shares the same reverence for these narratives.

She said they explain and add dimension to historical events like the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and provide context to current issues surrounding race. 

"To understand slavery through the eyes of someone who experienced it is just a remarkable and really important part of understanding our history," she said.

Keckley's works, as well as many other narratives from enslaved people, are available for viewing at Louis Round Wilson Library. 

Smith McKoy said Keckley ran against the grain of preconceived notions about slave narratives. Smith McKoy's speaker series will bring awareness to stories like Keckley's that are not as well-known.

Andrews recommended the “North American Slave Narrative” section of the UNC website, “Documenting the American South," which he created in the 1990s. Over 200 autobiographies or biographies by and about people who were enslaved are available for free on the site. 

Many of the narratives available online, according to Smith McKoy, are based in North Carolina, including abolitionist Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl."

“North Carolina has a really interesting history as it relates to our racial history,” Smith McKoy said. “There were many cultures here – not just Black and white, but an entire collage of free people of color who could identify with their ancestry across the races, but who lived their lives as Black Americans given the mores of that time. So there’s so much to be learned.” 

@marisarosaaa

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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