Black History

Elizabeth Keckley rose from slave to the Lincoln White House thanks to her supreme skill as a dressmaker. Her autobiography provides one of the most powerful accounts of the First Family's personal lives. (Photo from Documenting the American South collection at UNC-Chapel Hill via Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Keckley: D.C.'s Dressmaker to the Stars

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.

Malcolm X traveled widely in the early 1960s, but Washington was the site of two seemingly unlikely connections for him. (Photo source: Library of Congress.)

Malcolm X's Unlikely Washington Connections

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.

Alexandria's Earl Lloyd broke the color barrier in professional basketball when he debuted for the Washington Capitols on October 31, 1950. (Photo source: NBA.com)

Alexandria's Earl Lloyd Breaks Basketball's Color Line

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.

The Scurlocks Photograph Washington's Secret City

A husband and wife stand outside the Metropolitan Church (Source: Scurlock Collection/The Smithsonian)

Addison Scurlock dressed in a suit and tie whenever he held a camera. Confident and serious about his work and his appearance, he presented himself to the world the same way that he presented his subjects.

Scurlock was only 17 when he moved to Washington and listed “photographer” as his profession in the 1900 census. He apprenticed with a white photographer for three years before opening his own studio in his parents’ house. By 1911 he had a studio in northwest Washington, and soon he had two apprentices of his own: his sons, Robert and George. As adults, they joined him in the photography business. 

“I would describe my father as very intense, in all of his endeavors,” Robert Scurlock said in a 2003 interview. “He had a lot of drive to him. If he saw something he wanted to explore, he would find all means of doing it.”

Meeting the Community's Needs: Arlington’s Friendly Cab Company

In the 1940s, Jim Crow held strong in Arlington, Virginia. African-Americans encountered discrimination at segregated eating establishments, businesses and recreation facilities. Even access to medical care was divided along racial lines.

African American mothers were barred from the maternity ward at Arlington Hospital and were expected to travel to hospitals in Washington, D.C. or Alexandria to give birth. For many black Arlingtonians, getting to D.C. was difficult – especially in a medical emergency – as many could not afford cars of their own.

In 1947, three men with bright ideas and business ingenuity stepped up to fill the void.

Freedom Summer volunteers and locals canvassing. (Credit: Courtesy of Ted Polumbaum provided courtesy of Newseum)

D.C.'s Ties to Freedom Summer

In 1964, SNCC focused efforts on black voter registration and education in Mississippi, which had the lowest percentage of African-Americans registered to vote in the country (a startling 6.7% as of 1962). The group recruited hundreds of volunteers from college campuses across the nation to come to the state to canvass.

The 1964 Freedom Summer movement in Mississippi does not generally conjure up images of the nation’s capital. But a few of the organizers had strong ties to the District.

First Statue Representing D.C. Unveiled in U.S. Capitol

It was a long wait for sculptors and local politicians.

Since 2008, a seven-foot tall, 1,700 pound bronze statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass stood in the lobby of a building called One Judiciary Square. It remained there for five years while Washington officials fought to move it to another building less than a mile down the road: the U.S. Capitol. 

 

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of Douglass’ statue in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall. The ceremony was the culmination of a fight spanning over a decade. 

Photograph of Petey Greene

Petey Greene Talks Down the Riots, 1968

“God gave me a talent, and that talent was verbal skills." Critically acclaimed as America’s first “shock jock,” Petey Greene had the mouth and charisma to roar in the ears of people in the streets of Washington, D.C. His impact was no more apparent than in April of 1968 during the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Running down the streets outraged, a group of about thirty young people burst into a drug store. “Martin Luther King is dead,” they shouted. “Close the store down!” 26-year old Stokely Carmichael, former chairman of the SNNC and the initiator of the what became the “Black Power Movement” in 1967, led Washington, D.C. civilians down the streets demanding that all businesses close out of respect of the death of King.

Although the initial goal was to maintain peace, things quickly went out of Carmichael’s hands. Emotions boiled and violence broke out.  

Muhammad Ali in 1967 (World Journal Tribune photo by Ira Rosenberg, Library of Congress)

Muhammad Ali's Speech at Howard University, 1967

The PBS documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali, covers the boxing champ's struggles outside the ring during the tumultuous mid-1960s, and his emergence as a symbol of protest and dissent for young people of that time. Ali's duality as a firebrand activist and a revolutionary icon is examplified, in some ways, by his controversial appearance at Howard University in April 22, 1967, where he gave a speech to African-American students just days before he refused induction in the armed forces, which led to his indictment and conviction for draft evasion. 

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