Black Theatre Commons


by Kirsten Greenidge

The decades long friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, are explored in this play about female friendship, and the line between black and white. 

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley


The women of the play bond over the shared love of dresses and fashion. Historically, Mary Todd Lincoln was known for having bold clothing choices thanks to her inventive dressmaker and companion Elizabeth Keckley. Lincoln used her clothing as a marker of intellect, femininity, and high fashion that went against the grain of what was considered standard. Below are images from Godey's Lady's book chronicling the world of fashion in Antebellum & Civil War America. 

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antebellum america

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women of the era 

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Mary Todd Lincoln

"In grief, words are poor consolation - silence & agonizing tears are all that is left the sufferer." Letter to her sister, Elizabeth Todd Edwards, March 19, 1877.

"I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity. The very fact of having grown up in the West, subjects me to more searching observation. To keep up appearances, I must have money -- more than Mr. Lincoln can spare for me. He is too honest to make a penny outside of his salary; consequently I had, and still have, no alternative but to run in debt." Conversation with Elizabeth Keckley in the summer of 1864.

Mary Todd Lincoln in the news:

“Mrs. Lincoln was already seated to receive her guests. She is of the middle age and height, of a plumpness degenerating to the embonpoint natural to her years; her features are plain, her nose and mouth of an ordinary type, and her manners and appearance homely, stiffened, however, by the consciousness that her position requires her to be something more than plain Mrs. Lincoln, the wife of the Illinois lawyer; she is profuse in the introduction of the word ‘sir’ in every sentence, which is now almost an Americanism confined to certain classes, although it was once as common in England. Her dress I shall not attempt to describe, though it was very gorgeous and highly coloured. She handled a fan with much energy, displaying a round, well-proportioned arm, and was adorned with some simple jewelery. She struck me as being desirous of making herself agreeable, and I own I was agreeably disappointed, as the Secessionist ladies at Washington had been amusing themselves by anecdotes which could scarcely have been founded on fact.1”

-       From London Times, William Howard Russel



Elizabeth Keckley

Historian Carol Faulkner wrote: “Throughout her memoir, Keckley held up free African Americans as models of both independence and charity. Her catalogue of contributors to the Contraband Relief Society listed people of high status, accomplishment, and success.” Faulkner noted “The one thing she gained from slavery was ‘the important lesson of self-reliance.’ Though Keckley rejected the presumption of black dependence, she did acknowledge that not all African Americans shared her self-reliance. During the war, she encountered former slaves who had learned the same lessons, but for others, she judged, ‘dependence had become a part of their second nature, and independence brought with it the cares and vexations of poverty.’”6

Historian Catherine Clinton noted: “Keckly rented rooms from Walker Lewis, a leading Washington caterer. She lived in and maintained her dressmaking establishment on Twelfth Street.”

Mrs. Keckley later served as a sewing instructor at Wilberforce University. Her generosity toward the black college injured her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln in 1868 a few months before the rupture caused by her memoirs. Mrs. Keckley had given to Wilberforce the clothes that Mrs. Lincoln had worn on the night her husband was assassinated. Wilberforce provided them for European tour.

“We who are crushed to earth with heavy chains, who travel a weary, rugged, thorny road, groping through midnight darkness on earth, earn our right to enjoy the sunshine in the great hereafter. At the grave, at least, we should be permitted to lay our burdens down, that a new world, a world of brightness, may open to us. The light that is denied us here should grow into a flood of effulgence beyond the dark, mysterious shadows of death.” - Elizabeth Keckley

“For an act may be wrong judged purely by itself, but when the motive that prompted the act is understood, it is construed differently. I lay it down as an axiom, that only that is criminal in the sight of God where crime is mediated.” - Elizabeth Keckley




Historic figures referenced and recognized throughout the play.


Dolly Madison

Also written as “Dolley Madison.” Wife of President James Madison, who was President between 1809 and 1817. Noted for her social
grace, which boosted her husband’s popularity. She defined the role of First Lady, and helped to furnish the newly constructed White House.
When the British set fire to The White House in 1814, Dolley was credited with saving a portrait of George Washington. Once widowed, she
lived in poverty with a small income from the sale of her husband’s papers.


Martha Washington

First First Lady of the United States from April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797. Inherited wealth after being widowed from her first marriage, and
married George Washington. Referred to as “Lady Washington”


Holly Taft

Playmates and schoolmates  of Willie and Tad Lincoln. Holly and his brother Bud were dear friends of the Lincolns. Thier older sister, Julia Taft, was often responsible for watching the four boys. Shortly after Willie’s death, the Taft’s left Washington because their presence brought too much grief to Mrs. Lincoln. Julia taft later on wrote a book about her experiences with Lincoln’s in a book called Tad Lincoln’s Father.


Senator Jefferson Davis & Varina Davis

Varina Davis was the second wife of Jefferson Davis, who later became the President of the Confederate States of America. Varina served as First Lady of the Confederacy. Varina was born in the South, but educated and raised in Philadelphia. She, like Mary Todd Lincoln, had family in both the North and the South. After the Civil War, Varina completed her husband’s memoir, and became a regular columnist for New York World. After Jefferson’s death, Varina moved to New York City and actively reconciled with prominent figures of the North and South until her death in 1906 at 80 years old.


Dread Scott

Scott was an enslaved African American man who unsuccessfully sued for the freedom of his wife, two daughters and himself.

In 1857 Scott claimed that he and his family should be considered free after living in Illinois and Wisconsin for four years, where slavery was illegal. The United States Supreme Court decided that Scott or anyone else with African ancestry could claim citizenship in the United States, so the case could not be considered a suit in federal law. The case sparked public outrage, and deepened the divide between the North and South speeding up the eventual Civil War.


Frederick Douglass

Former slave, African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, statesmen. He became a national leader of the abolitionist movement known for his speeches and anti-slavery writings. He was used as a counter-example to slaveholders arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity
to function as independent American citizens. Autobiographies include
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:An American Slave, My Bondage and my Freedom.



Willie Lincoln 

“Born in 1850, Willie died on February 20, 1862 of a typhoid-like disease. His death was traumatic for the entire family. Willie was studious, personable, intelligent and creative—the child who most closely reflected his father’s personality. His death was probably caused by the contaminated water that flowed through a nearby canal that provided water for the White House and a place for White House children to play. He was attended to by Dr. Robert K. Stone, the family physician. His parents were in nearly constant attendance during his illness as Willie literally wasted away and in constant grief after his death. Mrs. Lincoln “did all a mother ought or could during Willie’s sickness—she never left his side at all after he became dangerous, & almost wore herself out with watching, and she mourns as no one but a mother can at her son’s death,” reported Benjamin B. French.4 All the folk medicines in Washington—and many were given to Willie from Peruvian bark to beef tea—could not save him.”


Mammy Sally

“Mary learned other things from the family slaves. Mammy Sally, the most constant adult presence in her early years, told menacing stories of spirits, the devil, and that archetypal phantom of West African myth, the jay bird. Mammy’s tales of the jay bird terrified Mary. In the traditional splitting of the maternal role into the good and bad, the jay bird was Mammy’s evil eye, reporting on the children’s misdoings and helping the slave control her numerous charges. Of course, Mammy was supposed to be a Christian, and at least in front of Mary’s parents, she probably behaved as one. Although Lexington’s free black community supported two of its own churches (for a time a slave preached in one), every Sunday Mammy Sally attended McChord’s Presbyterian Church with the Todds, sitting in the slave gallery upstairs. But in her kitchen she mixed Christian theology with Afro-American belief, and it was Mammy who reinforced an idea Mary later cherished: the notion that the dead, perhaps even the mother who had abandoned her, return to the living in spiritual visitations that are not ill-intentioned.” - from Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography


Aggie (Elizabeth Keckley's Mother)

“My mother's name was Agnes, and my father delighted to call me his "Little Lizzie." While yet my father and mother were speaking hopefully, joyfully of the future, Mr. Burwell came to the cabin, with a letter in his hand. He was a kind master in some things, and as gently as possible informed my parents that they must part; for in two hours my father must join his master at Dinwiddie, and go with him to the West, where he had determined to make his future home. The announcement fell upon the little circle in that rude-log cabin like a thunderbolt. I can remember the scene as if it were but yesterday;--how my father cried out against the cruel separation; his last kiss; his wild straining of my mother to his bosom; the solemn prayer to Heaven; the tears and sobs--the fearful anguish of broken hearts. The last kiss, the last good-by; and he, my father, was gone, gone forever.” - from Thirty Years a Slave by Elizabeth Keckley

James Keckley

“THE twelve hundred dollars with which I purchased the freedom of myself and son I consented to accept only as a loan. I went to work in earnest, and in a short time paid every cent that was so kindly advanced by my lady patrons of St. Louis. All this time my husband was a source of trouble to me, and a burden. Too close occupation with my needle had its effects upon my health, and feeling exhausted with work, I determined to make a change. I had a conversation with Mr. Keckley; informed him that since he persisted in dissipation we must separate; that I was going North, and that I should never live with him again, at least until I had good evidence of his reform. He was rapidly debasing himself, and although I was willing to work for him, I was not willing to share his degradation. Poor man; he had his faults, but over these faults death has drawn a veil. My husband is now sleeping in his grave, and in the silent grave I would bury all unpleasant memories of him.” - from Thirty Years a Slave by Elizabeth Keckely. 



Abraham Lincoln

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.” - Abraham Lincoln

"The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” - Abraham Lincoln


Inaugration Day, 1861

Inaugration Day, 1861

Inauguration Day, 1861

Lincoln Inaugurated March 4, 1861. Excerpt from the address:

“In your hand, my fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it… We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


Whig Party

Active in the 19th Century. Four Presidents belonged to the Whig Party while in Office. Whigs supported supremacy of Congress over Presidency and favored modernization and economic protectionism to stimulate manufacturing. Some of the biggest supporters of the Whigs were entrepreneurs and planters, but very little support from the working class.


Emancipation Proclamation

Signed January 1, 1863 that declared “that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free.”



Mary Todd Lincoln in her (in) famous Rose Dress. 

Mary Todd Lincoln in her (in) famous Rose Dress. 



  • Mary Todd Lincoln is born December 13, 1818
  • Elizabeth Keckley is born February 1818


  • Andrew Jackson becomes President of the United States in 1828.
  • White comedian Thomas D. Rice introduces blackface (the racist performance of white people performing as stereotypes of black people for entertainment).
  • Elizabeth Keckly is owned as a slave by the Burwell family.
  • Mary Todd Lincoln’s relationship with her stepmother worsens, but she finds solace in going to Madam Mentell’s Academy.


  • The telegraph is created, revolutionizing how news is spread throughout the United States.
  • The Trail of Tears begins involving the forced removal of Native Americans to the West.
  • Future abolitionist Frederick Douglass escapes from slavery.
  • Abraham Lincoln speaks at the Springfield Young Men’s Lyceum in his beginnings as a politician.
  • Abraham Lincoln & Mary Todd Lincoln meet for the first time.
  • Elizabeth Keckley is a slave in St. Louis, Missouri. Her dresses are the primary income for the Burwell family as she works to support herself, her son George, the Burwells (a family of four) and their estate. 


  • The California Gold Rush beings, and the Washington Monument in D.C. is established.
  • The first women’s rights convention is held in Seneca Falls, New York.
  • Elizabeth Keckley is working to purchase her and her son’s freedom through her work as a dressmaker.
  • Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln marry in 1842. By 1843 they have their first child, Robert Todd Lincoln. Willie Lincoln is born in 1850. Tad Lincoln is born in 1853.




  • Southern States begin to push for support of slavery. Abraham Lincoln makes his “House Divided” speech in the State Capitol in Springfield, IL.

 “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” - Abraham Lincoln.

  • Elizabeth Keckley purchased her and her son’sfreedom in 1855. She set off to work in Washington, D.C. where she became the owner of a dress shop.
  • Mary Todd Lincoln works to prepare Abraham Lincoln to be President, assisting him in his office as a State Representative and later on the campaign trail.


  • Abraham Lincoln is elected president.
  • Mary Todd Lincoln & Elizabeth Keckley meet for the first time.
  • The American Civil War begins.
  • Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth in April 1865.


  • The era of reconstruction. The United States begins to put itself back together after the bloodiest war in its young history.
  • Mary Todd Lincoln lives in obscurity, attempting to sell her gowns from her time as a First Lady as her primary source of income.
  • Elizabeth Keckley’s book Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House is published. The book plunges Keckley into infamy for telling the intimate story of her relationship with the Lincolns.


Beyond the Play


Questions, Resources, and Thoughts to Continue the Conversation

The delicate friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley is explored through this play that searches through each woman’s past in order to reconcile with the complicated expectations of the present.


How do we define worth? How do we prove our worth and/or value to others?

“I...I know a great deal about you. How many other ladies share their lives with thier dressmakers? We are friends, Lizabeth.” - Mary Todd Lincoln (pg. 86)

What are the rules of friendship? Is a friend someone you spend a lot of time with? Is a friend someone that you confide in? How can someone betray your friendship?

Fashion has a way to define status, show unity or become a form of protest. Throughout time, clothing has been used as a way to stand out or blend into a crowd.

In what ways have women used fashion as a political statement?

Who controls what is popular in fashion and what is not?



Fashion is what brings together the unlikely friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley.

How does Mary Todd Lincoln use fashion throughout the play? How as Elizabeth Keckley’s relationship to fashion assist in her upward mobility?

In what ways do we use fashion as a statement today? How?

“You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once, but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope and take on a life of it’s own.” - First Lady Michele Obama


Both Elizabeth Keckly and Mary Todd Lincoln defy the odds of expectations.

Has the perception of women in positions of power changed since Mary Todd Lincoln’s time? If so, how has it changed? How has it stayed the same?

How Soft The Lining chronicles a friendship before, during and after the Civil War. Questions about class and race challenge the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley.

What are some obstacles that Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeh Keckley faced due to their race? How did perceptions of race challenge their friendship in the 1860s? How do perceptions of race challenge friendships today?