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The questions that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Elizabeth Keckly and Mary Todd Lincoln’s story, as well as help you examine the tumultuous era in which their friendship thrived, and the social issues surrounding their relationship.
She is a little-known but crucial character in one of the most volatile chapters in United States history. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly bought her freedom in 1855 and went on to become the most sought-after dressmaker in Washington society. When Mary Todd Lincoln engaged her services, a fascinating friendship was born, and Keckly became the First Lady’s trusted friend and confidante during the Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period. Against this tumultuous nineteenth-century landscape, Mrs. Lincoln & Mrs. Keckly at last restores an overlooked dimension to the Lincoln years, and to American history itself.
Historian Jennifer Fleischner’s book reveals the legacy of slavery in the lives of two women – one born to be a mistress; the other, to be a slave –who were at the heart of the nation’s most wrenching trial.
1. The story of Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly gives a view into the vexed and ambiguous relations between the races in antebellum and post-Civil War America. How were the lives of these women shaped from childhood through adulthood by the complexities of race relations? Do you think that Mary and Lizzy being women played a part in their ability to relate across the color line? Would you call their relationship a “friendship”?
2. One of the themes of the book is the development of Elizabeth Keckly’s sense of self. In what ways do you think being mixed-race affected her identity? How did her relationships to her family, white and black help and/or hurt her? How did relationships outside of her family help and/or hurt her? As a freed woman, how did she come to terms with her past?
3. How did Elizabeth Keckly cope with the traumas of enslavement? She claimed that slavery had its bright side as well as its dark side. How do you understand her point of view?
4. If we think about freedom as not only a legal, but also a psychological condition, what were the stages in Elizabeth Keckly’s becoming free? Do you think she ever became truly free? Do you think she was freer in some ways than Mary Lincoln?
5. Mary Lincoln inspired contradicting reactions in her contemporaries, while today people still argue over her character. Why did she inspire such conflicting reactions in her own time, as well as ours? Did your feelings about her change over the course of the book?
6. When Elizabeth Keckly arrived in Washington, she established herself in the local black middle class. What were your impressions of this community?
7. The author argues that Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly became closer as Mary Lincoln’s life deteriorated. Yet events in Lizzy’s life may have also contributed to their growing friendship. How did their relationship evolve? And how did the dynamic between the two women change over time?
8. Why do you think Elizabeth Keckly wrote her memoir, in which she revealed so much about Mary Lincoln’s recent private life? Was Mary Lincoln justified in feeling angry and betrayed?
9. Has reading this book changed your thinking about race and race relations in America?
10. Consider Mrs. Lincoln’s and Mrs. Keckly’s lives. Are there any parallels you can draw between the two women’s experiences from childhood onward?