In 1867, Mary Todd Lincoln became embroiled in the “old clothes” scandal. But this story isn’t about Mrs. Lincoln; it’s about one of her associates, dressmaker to the stars, Elizabeth Keckley.
Keckley was born a slave in Virginia around 1820. Her earliest duty was to watch after the baby of the white family; she was beaten severely for making mistakes. Following the sexual abuse of her mother, which led to Keckley’s birth, Keckley herself was sexually assaulted.
In addition, she was loaned out to a family in St. Louis who used the income she brought in from dressmaking to support themselves. From her autobiography:
With my needle, I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.
In 1860, Keckley was able to buy her freedom with the sum of $12,000. Her clients, the well-to-do women of St. Louis had heard of her struggles to raise the money and passed the hat between themselves to provide the amount.
Keckley moved to D.C. to set up shop and teach young colored women in her trade. Here she confronted the laws obstructing the movement of freed people in the capital. Unless she could obtain a license to stay in the capital (which required money) and have someone vouch that she was free, Keckley would have to leave. Here again the lady clients of Keckley came to her aid.
Shortly after her arrival in Washington, Keckley entered the employ of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, though she still made dresses for other women of the city, like Mrs. Robert E. Lee.
Keckley’s time with Mary Todd Lincoln, however, is particularly noted by historians, who use Keckley's book to draw conclusions about the First family’s private life.
In the early 1960s, Malcolm X traveled widely preaching black separatism on behalf of the Nation of Islam and – after splitting from the group in 1964 – promoting a more moderate vision for American race relations. So, it's no surprise that he came to the nation's capital on a number of occasions.
On the 50th anniversary of his death, we look back on two rather unusual connections Malcolm made in Washington.
In 1964, D.C. was the site of the only known in-person meeting between Malcolm and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was significant considering the two leaders' very public differences on approaches to the civil rights movement. Malcolm once called King "Rev. Dr. Chicken-wing" in a not-so-subtle critique of non-violent civil disobedience.
The two staged a made-for-the-cameras meeting in the U.S. Capitol. But, as strange as the photo-op with King seemed at the time, Malcolm made headlines with an even more unlikely connection in Washington a few years earlier.
"You don’t have to look too far when you’re in Shenandoah to see the relics of human habitation. You don’t have to be a historian. You don’t have to be an archaeologist. You can stay on trail. You can’t help but find stone walls that were built by somebody, clearly. There’s old roads. There’s house foundations. These are things you can see from the trail. So, I just saw these things over many, many years and I kind of wondered for awhile what they were all about but I didn’t really look into it for quite some time, until I started going a little bit off trail and finding more things off trail. And my curiosity was really piqued and I wanted to know, who were these people? Why are they not here? Why did they leave? Where did they go? And, what is their story all about?"
It was the roaring '20s and radio was taking off. Americans were tuning-in in droves for news, opera, popular music and sports. No other medium offered the ability to reach so many people instantaneously. Advertisers took note.
So, too, did the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, which was interested in its own sort of advertising: promoting a unique brand of “patriotism” founded upon white privilege and intolerance for blacks, Catholics, Jews and immigrants amongst others. The Klan's foray into broadcasting is still felt in Washington to this day.
Over the past several decades, Arlington's Columbia Pike corridor has grown into one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the nation. The neighborhood is literally home to the world, which makes it a fascinating subject for study. But how do you capture the essence of a community? It's a big question and one that Lloyd Wolf and his collaborators on the Columbia Pike Documentary Project have been trying to answer for almost 10 years.
We sat down with Wolf to learn more about the project. Check out the video below for some highlights from the conversation. Then click through for more!
Earl Lloyd was a rising basketball star at West Virginia State College, but little did he know how soon he would become an important part of sports history. Toward the end of Lloyd’s senior season he was heading to class with a classmate and she told him she heard his name on the radio that day. Unaware of what she was referring to, Lloyd simply asked what she heard. She told him some team in Washington called the Washington Capitols had drafted him.
“You’re going to Washington and they’re going to try you guys out, so show them your best,” said Lloyd’s college coach, Marquis Caldwell. Being from Alexandria, Virginia, it was almost a homecoming party for Earl Lloyd. Before he was at West Virginia State, he graduated from Parker-Gray High School in 1946, Alexandria’s only African-American high school.
By the time she was 23, Mulholland had participated in more than fifty sit-ins and protests. She was a Freedom Rider, a participant in the near riotous Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth Sit-in, and helped plan and organize the March on Washington in 1963. On a local level, she was part of the first Arlington sit-ins, which integrated lunch counters across northern Virginia, and helped to coordinate demonstrations at Glen Echo Park, Bethesda's Hiser Theater amongst other locations.
It's a foreign concept now but for many years, Arlington County did not have its own fire department. Instead, the county was served by a number of independent volunteer fire departments. These were organized locally, typically within neighborhoods where citizen leaders saw the need for some level of fire protection and established a resource right in their own neighborhood. (The first such VFD was established in Cherrydale in 1898.) When a fire broke out, the volunteers would leave their homes or businesses and go fight the flames.
In 1932, as the nation lingered in the desperate depths of the Great Depression, thousands of World War I veterans and their families marched on Washington to demand immediate lump-sum payment of their military pensions. To the consternation of President Herbert Hoover, who was about to embark upon a difficult reelection campaign, the ragtag army camped in tents and shacks along the Anacostia River, and began trying to pressure the White House and Congress by marching up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Unfortunately, the bill to pay them their benefits passed the House but was overwhelmingly defeated in the Senate in June.
The marchers stubbornly stayed, and rebuffed the Hoover administration's offer of train fare out of town. In response, Hoover decided to evict them by force. On July 28, in one of the most disturbing moments in the history of Washington, U.S. horse cavalry wearing gas masks and steel helmets, and backed by five tanks, descended upon the bonus marchers, scattering them and their wives and children and burning their campsites.
Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Roberta Flack started playing the piano at an early age. When she was five, her family moved to the Nauck community in Arlington and she took up the organ, lending her musical talents to Macedonia Baptist Church. At 15, she entered Howard University with a full music scholarship and, by 19, she was a college graduate seeking.
She accepted a position in a segregated school district in Farmville, North Carolina and wound up being the only music teacher for 1300 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. “I lost 40 pounds and almost had a nervous breakdown but we did some beautiful things that year.”
Flack returned to Washington and taught at Rabaut Junior High School and Brown Junior High School. In the evenings, she started performing – first at the Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights and then at Mr. Henry’s, a Capitol Hill nightclub at 6th and Pennsylvania Ave, SE, which was owned by Henry Yaffe.