Hollywood Has Yet to Capture the Relationship that Developed between African Americans and Lincoln

Hollywood Has Yet to Capture the Relationship that Developed between African Americans and Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln has been featured in movies since the dawn of cinema, but it’s only been in recent years that his connection with African Americans has gained significant attention. Released in 2012, two films highlighted the role of Black men and women in the Lincoln White House. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter included a childhood friend named William Johnson (played by Curtis Harris) who was sold into slavery, escaped, and grew up to serve as one of Lincoln’s closest presidential advisors. Although wholly fictionalized in the film, William H. Johnson was a real figure in Lincoln’s adult life—a valet and barber who served Lincoln in both Springfield, Illinois, and Washington, D.C.

Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning Lincoln also featured two important Black figures—William Slade (played by Stephen Henderson) and Elizabeth Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben). As the president’s usher and valet, Slade had great responsibility in the Executive Mansion. He managed the other servants and attended to the president’s needs. (Slade also had the unenviable task of preparing Lincoln’s body to be placed in the coffin in April 1865.) According to Slade’s daughter, the president regularly discussed his speeches and political decisions with Slade. She even claimed that by the time the Emancipation Proclamation was released her father “already knew every word of it.” Slade also had important public roles in wartime Washington. He was active in several Black social and political organizations, was an elder at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, and was a leader in the African American community in Washington when it came to military recruitment.[1]

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Keckley, the most famous African American woman in the Lincoln White House, served as Mary Lincoln’s seamstress and modiste. Born to an enslaved mother and a white planter in Virginia in 1818, Keckley’s life in bondage was one of grit, suffering, and endurance. As a teenager she was sent to North Carolina, where she was severely beaten. For four years she was raped by “a white man” who had “base designs upon me” and “persecuted me . . . and I—I—became a mother.”[2] (Her son would later die as a soldier in the Union army.) Eventually, in 1855, she was able to purchase her own freedom.

Keckley moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a dressmaker for prominent women of the city, including Varina Davis. In 1861 Mary Lincoln hired her and the two developed a close friendship. In fact, Keckley was present for some of the most painful and moving scenes in the Executive Mansion, including the death of Willie Lincoln in February 1862. She was also active in raising funds for former slaves who had been displaced by the friction and abrasion of the war. In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Keckley remained a close confidant of the widow. Abolitionist Julia Wilbur wrote in her diary, “Mrs. Slade & Mrs. Keckley have been with Mrs. Lincoln nearly all the time since the murder, not as servants but as friends. Both colored women; & Mrs. Lincoln said she chose them because her husband was appreciated by the colored race; they (the colored people) understood him.”[3] In 1868 Keckly published a now-celebrated memoir, Behind the Scenes; Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The revelatory nature of the book infuriated Mary Lincoln and created a permanent schism between the two women.

In the Spielberg film, Keckly and Slade make several appearances. In Slade’s most poignant scene, young Tad Lincoln looks at a photograph of a slave who has been beaten severely. Tad asks his father, “Why do some slaves cost more than others?” Tad’s older brother Robert replies that a slave’s value is related to his or her age and health, or whether a woman can conceive. Lincoln tells Tad to put the images back into the box. Tad then turns to Slade and asks innocently, “When you were a slave, Mr. Slade, did they beat you?” Slade replies with a smile, “I was born a free man. Nobody beat me except I beat them right back.” Keckly then enters the room and Slade says to Tad, “Mrs. Keckly was a slave. Ask her if she was beaten.” “Were you?” Tad asks, as his father shakes his head. “I was beaten with a fire shovel when I was younger than you,” she replies.

Title page of Behind The Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley.

In another pivotal scene, Keckley thanks Lincoln for all he is doing to get the 13th Amendment passed in the House of Representatives. “Thank you for your concern over this,” she says. “And I want you to know they’ll approve it. God will see to it.” Lincoln replies with wry humor: “I don’t envy him his task.”

After a few more words pass between them, Lincoln asks the seamstress, “Are you afraid of what lies ahead for your people? If we succeed?”

Keckley replies, “White people don’t want us here.” (This is an allusion to colonization, a scheme supported by many whites—including Lincoln until 1863 or 1864—to send freedpeople to Africa or other parts of the world.)

“Many don’t,” Lincoln concedes.

“What about you?” she asks.

Lincoln pauses. “I don’t know you Mrs. Keckley. Any of you. You’re familiar to me, as all people are. Unaccommodated, poor, bare, forked creatures such as we all are. You have a right to expect what I expect, and likely our expectations are not incomprehensible to each other. I assume I’ll get used to you.” Lincoln then continues, “What you are to the nation—what will become of you once slavery’s day is done, I don’t know.”

With dignity in her voice, Keckley replies: “What my people are to be I can’t say. I never heard any ask what freedom would bring. Freedom’s first. As for me, my son died fighting for the Union. Wearing the Union blue. For freedom he died. And I am his mother. That’s what I am to the nation, Mr. Lincoln. What else must I be?”

Spielberg’s inclusion of Keckley and Slade in Lincoln was essential for capturing the White House as it was in Lincoln’s day. But they were far from the only African Americans to enter the White House during the period covered in the film.[4] Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Martin R. Delany visited the White House during the period covered by the film. So did a number of other African Americans whose names have since been lost to history.

In fact, African Americans visited the White House in significant numbers between 1862 and 1865. The filmmakers’ decisions to focus only on White House staff missed a much bigger story. And the line that Spielberg’s Lincoln says to Keckley—“I don’t know you Mrs. Keckley. Any of you.”—ignores the relationship that developed between the sixteenth president and African Americans during the Civil War.

During the Lincoln Administration, hundreds of African Americans boldly walked through the White House doors for private meetings and public receptions—claiming “the People’s House” as their house, and the president as their president. This was a significant shift in American race relations. Prior to the Civil War, African Americans were more likely to be bought and sold by a sitting president than to be welcomed as his guests. But wartime Washington experienced a shock to the norm.

Black men and women came to the White House for a variety of reasons. Some merely wished to see the president, or to thank him. A few even brought him gifts. But others had larger objects in mind. In 1862, for example, Robert Smalls pushed Lincoln to enlist black men into the Union army. In 1863, Frederick Douglass strongly encouraged the president to ensure that U.S. Colored Troops received the same treatment as white soldiers. And in 1864, at least three delegations of Black southerners urged Lincoln to support Black male suffrage. One of these visitors, Rev. Richard H. Parker of Norfolk, Virginia, later recalled: “I knew [as] soon as I heard that man speak, and saw his kind face, that he would be a good friend to my people; and I’ve never had cause to change my mind.” Parker then said that he went “home contented, with a full heart.”[5]

Personal interactions with African Americans changed Lincoln’s views on several important policy matters. Shortly after meeting with Robert Smalls, for example, Lincoln came to support the enlistment of African American soldiers. The southern delegations’ push for voting rights also helped shape Lincoln’s thinking on that matter. Lincoln’s many personal interactions with African Americans in wartime Washington have been largely forgotten, but they are stories that should be better known—and that could be told in compelling ways on the big screen. For three years African Americans and Abraham Lincoln worked together to make strides for equality, to quote First Lady Michelle Obama, “in a house that was built by slaves.”

[1] John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1942), 105-117; Natalie Sweet, “A Representative ‘of Our People’: The Agency of William Slade, Leader in the African American Community and Usher to Abraham Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 34 (Summer 2013): 21-41.

[2] Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes; Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (New York: G. W. Carleton and Co., 1868), 36-39.

[3]Julia Wilbur, diary entry for April 20, 1865, Haverford College, Quaker and Special Collections (transcriptions by Alexandria Archaeology).

[4] Gary L. Flowers, executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum, also made this point in “‘Lincoln’: What’s Missing from this Movie?” Philadelphia Tribune, November 30, 2012.

[5] H. C. Percy, “Father Parker,” American Missionary 12 (August 1868): 169-72.

Jonathan W. White

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and author or editor of 13 books, including A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House (2022) and To Address You As My Friend: African Americans’ Letters to Abraham Lincoln (2021). Follow him on Twitter at @CivilWarJon.

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