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‘I Spare The World His Name’
The Coming of Age Of Elizabeth Keckley
Elizabeth was born in 1818, a slave to Colonel* A. Burwell, and his cruel wife. At the age of 4 she was tasked with caring for a baby. When she rocked the crib too vigorously and the baby fell out, she called for her mistress and attempted to use a shovel to scoop the baby back into the crib. For this she was severely beaten with a whip. Her mistress told her that she ‘would never be worth her salt’, so she grew into a defiant industrious woman in order to prove her wrong. Her father was sold out west and was never seen again. Mrs. Burwell scolded her mother for crying and told her to find another husband. Elizabeth knitted socks and worked at other occupations from the age of four.
At age 14 Elizabeth was loaned to the eldest Burwell son, a Presbyterian minister, who had married a poor woman. Elizabeth did all of the work and managed the finances for her master and mistress; maid, landscaper, cook, accountant, and so on.
At age 18 her owners moved from Virginia to Hillsboro North Carolina. There they employed the local schoolmaster, a Mister Bingham, to ‘subdue her stubborn pride’. He overpowered her as she fought, stripped down her dress, tied her with a rope, and beat her bare body with a rawhide whip until blood ran. When she complained to her master—the local minister—he beat her with a chair.
The following week Mister Bingham attacked her again. She fought him off by biting his finger, so he beat her bloody with a stick.
The following week the schoolmaster attacked her again and she fought. He beat her bloody but then broke down in tears and confessed that beating her was a sin. Afterwards he would never beat her or another ‘servant’ again.
After the schoolteacher lost the stomach to beat her, her owner, the minister, cut an oak club at the woodpile and beat her with it. Elizabeth fought the minister, but God’s earthly advocate ‘proved stronger’ than the lowly slave girl, and she was beaten so badly that she could not walk for five days. The beating was so savage, however, that her white trash mistress [who had arranged the beatings out of jealousy for Elizabeth’s appearance, as she was ‘regarded as fair-looking for one of my race’] pleaded with her husband not to beat her again.
The bitch was probably afraid he would kill the woman who did all of the work and that she’d have to get her hands dirty. According to Elizabeth the town of Hillsboro was scandalized by her treatment, though she does not state whether the neighbors disapproved of the punishments, or simply the fact that it took two armed men to finally beat one petite woman into submission. After reading other accounts from North Carolina, I’m guessing that the locals lost respect for the Burwell’s based on their inability to break Elizabeth’s spirit, and their poverty, attested to by their unwillingness to kill the back-talking slave girl.
The Burwells might have lost the stomach for beating Elizabeth. But there was more cruelty to come. The minister and his wife arranged for her to be raped by a man who to her was so detestable that she wrote, “I spare the world his name”. For four years Elizabeth was pimped out to this man, who impregnated her. Elizabeth declined to give any humiliating details about her use as a sex slave. She had this to say about the results of the experience, “…the child of which he was the father was the only child I ever brought into the world. If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of his birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of the society which determined it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my position.”
Afterward
Elizabeth Keckley went on to be a successful seamstress, being the personal dress maker to the wives of the two most powerful [and in my opinion most evil] men of 19th Century America, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln. Her son was killed fighting for the Union. After writing her book she was persecuted by the Lincolns, the press, and black leaders. She would eventually die in 1907 in poverty in a house for the destitute that she had founded.
*No wonder the South did so well battle-for-battle in the Civil War. Every second slave owner seemed to be an officer decades before the war began. The need to suppress and recover slaves obviously called for a paramilitary society. Also note that Elizabeth referred to herself and other chattel as both a servant and slave. A close reading of black slave narratives makes it clear that whites were being enslaved under the term ‘servant’ up until the 1830s.
Our Greatest Saint in His Own Words
If the reader is surprised that Abraham Lincoln’s survivors persecuted former slave Elizabeth Keckley for having the audacity to relate aspects of her service to Mary Todd Lincoln in her book Behind the Scenes [which reflected positively on the Lincolns] then you might want to consider the American Christ’s own words about the suitability of African American opinion.
“I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people….”
If one looks at Washington D.C. monumental iconography as an anthropologist, then it is obvious that The Lincoln Memorial is the temple of a God—a deified autocrat on the Imperial Roman model. Elizabeth failed to worship her society’s martyred god-emperor, and paid the apostate’s price; her words stricken from the record, and her body and soul cast out among the wretched.
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