Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (1818-1907)
On the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, his frantic wife, Mary, calls for her best friend and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, but the woman is mistakenly kept from her side by guards who were unaware of Mary Todd Lincoln's close friendship with the black seamstress. How did these two women--one who grew up in a wealthy Southern home and became the wife of the president of the United States, the other who was born a slave and eventually purchased her own freedom--come to be such close companions? With vivid detail and emotional power, Ann Rinaldi delves into the childhoods of these two fascinating women who became devoted friends and confidantes amid the turbulent times of the Lincoln administration.
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I know what liberty is because I know what slavery was.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (1818-1907) (widely misspelled as Keckley) was a former slave turned successful seamstress who is most notably known as being Mary Todd Lincoln's personal modiste and confidante, and the author of her autobiography, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Mrs. Keckly utilized her intelligence, keen business savvy, and sewing and design skills to arrange and ultimately buy her freedom (and that of her son George as well), and later enjoyed regular business with the wives of the government elite as her base clientele.
After years of establishment in St. Louis she moved to Washington, DC in the Spring of 1860, where she had the country's most elite women of the time requesting her services. Through shrewd networking and hard work, she ended up making gowns and dresses for more notable wives such as Mrs. Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, and Mrs. Mary Anne Randolph Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee. Of all her clients, she had the closest and most long-standing relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, devoting many of her days during Abraham Lincoln's administration to being available to her and the First Family in a myriad of ways.
Elizabeth Keckly was born a slave in February 1818 in Dinwiddie Courthouse, VA, just south of Petersburg. Her mother, Agnes Hobbs, was a house slave for Armistead and Mary Burwell. 'Aggy' as she was called, was considered a 'privileged slave', and although the means of her education are unknown and law forbade it, learned to read and write. Also outside of customary practice, Agnes was permitted to marry George Pleasant Hobbs. George Hobbs was also a literate slave, residing at the home of a neighbor during Elizabeth Keckly's early childhood. The only father figure she had ever known, George was taken with Elizabeth, or 'Lizzy' as she was affectionately called, and was met with great sadness when his master decided to move far enough away that it essentially severed her and her mother's ties to him, and any chances of their being a family unit.
Her biological father, whose real identity would revealed to her later on in life, was Armistead Burwell. Nothing is really known about the dynamics of Agnes and Armistead's relationship, but there is certainty that at least once they had a sexual encounter (while Mary Burwell was pregnant with their tenth child) that resulted in Agnes' first child, Elizabeth.Although Keckly was technically a Burwell, she chose to keep the surname of her slave father, George Pleasant Hobbs, even after realizing her true lineage.
Armistead Burwell lived in the early 1800's in Dinwiddie County, Virginia as a planter. Burwell owned over fifty slaves, one of whom was Elizabeth Keckly, who is best known for being the modiste and close friend to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln.
Armistead Burwell was the biological father of Elizabeth Keckly
Lizzy Keckly resided in the Burwell house with her mother, and began official duties at age five when it was decided that because the Burwell's had four other children under the age of ten, that she would become the nursemaid for their infant daughter, Elizabeth Margaret. Taking on the responsibility as an honor even as a young child, she also came to understand the dynamics of a slave's existence early in her life. While looking after the baby one day, she accidentally tipped the cradle over too far, and the infant rolled onto the floor. This resulted in the beginning of many painful episodes of abuse that Keckly had to endure, starting with the beating that Mary Burwell ordered for the five-year-old Lizzy that would become a lasting memory for the rest of her life.
In 1832 at age 14, Keckly was sent to live 'on generous loan' with the eldest Burwell son, Robert and his wife Margaret Anna Robertson in Chesterfield County, VA, near Petersburg. Anna Burwell (just seven years Keckly's senior), demonstrated particular contempt for Elizabeth, and made home life for the next four years most uncomfortable for her. Keckly mentioned that Anna Burwell seemed 'desirous to wreak vengeance'upon her, and enlisted the help of their neighbor William J. Bingham to help subdue her 'stubborn pride', or in layman's terms of the period, to 'break her'.
When Keckly was 18, Bingham called her to his quarters for unexplained reasons and ordered her to 'take down her dress' so that he may beat her. Keckly immediately refused, citing that in addition to her being a fully developed woman, that he "shall not whip me unless you prove the stronger. Nobody has a right to whip me but my own master, and nobody shall do so if I can prevent it." He proceeded to bind her hands and beat her, resulting in Elizabeth returning home with bleeding welts upon her back. Mr. Bingham may have proven to be the stronger in the 'physical' sense, but not on a mental or spiritual level.
One week later, Mr. Bingham attacked her again and flogged her until he was exhausted of energy. During these beatings, Elizabeth refused to show great emotion, and suppressed her tears and voice with all of her will. The following week, after yet another attempt to 'break her', Bingham himself was broken. With Keckly standing bleeding before him, "he burst into tears, and declared that it would be a sin" to beat her anymore. He stopped beating her, asked for her forgiveness, and thus ended his campaign of abuse against her, stating that he was an 'altered man'. Unfortunately after William Bingham's declaration, Robert Burwell assumed punishment duties. Keeping with the Bingham beatings, Keckly remained strong and determined, and after a few furious beatings he also declared that he would strike her no longer, and Keckly said that he indeed did keep his word.
Alas, her 'persecution' was not yet finished as she endured more abuse, this time of a sexual nature. For four years, a man by the name of Alexander M. Kirkland forced a sexual relationship upon Keckly, which she said caused "suffering and deep mortification" during her residence in Hillsborough, NC. Out of this forced relationship she bore a son, of whom Keckly named George, after her slave father. Being her first and ultimately only child, it would be Kirkland's third.Later on after gaining freedom, George chose to use his biological father's last name of Kirkland, in contrast to Elizabeth's decision. The reasons for his doing so are not clear; some posit that he may have have been proud of the 'good blood' from his white ancestry and wanted to establish his connection and status, but we do know that he obviously did not share the resentment and purposeful disassociation desires of his mother.
Road to Freedom
By early 1842, Armistead Burwell was deceased, and his mistress and her slaves went back to Virginia to live with her daughter Anne and son-in-law Hugh A. Garland, just southwest of Petersburg. Due to the increasing financial difficulties in the Garland family, several decisions needed to be made in order to support the large family and slave inventory. Some of the slave children were sold, and some were hired out, but Aggy and Lizzy remained with their mistress. After many moves, in 1847 the Garland's moved to St. Louis. Anne relied heavily upon Agnes and Elizabeth to help with the care of her children, and to do all of the family sewing. Out of the Garlands' fiscal calamities, Keckly would eventually create opportunities for herself in St. Louis. Working for nearly twelve years in St. Louis afforded her the opportunities to intermix with a rather large free black population for inspiration, but also the networking connections that she would firmly establish while making a name for herself as a dressmaker for the town's white gentry.
1850 was an eventful year for Keckly, as she met her future husband, James Keckly, and she began her campaign for freedom. She approached Hugh Garland and asked if she could buy her and her son's freedom, to which he flatly refused and wanted to hear nothing more about it. Determined to not let the subject rest, she kept trying to get permission for two years, and in 1852 her proposal was finally granted with Hugh Garland stating that he would release them for the sum of $1,200. During this time, James Keckly had asked Lizzy for her hand in marriage, but she refused to do so until she and her son were free.
Steadfast in her quest to raise the money needed, she began to entertain the idea of going to New York to "appeal to the benevolence of the people. After word spread about Keckly's intentions, she found benevolence right at home in St. Louis. One of her patrons, Mrs. Le Bourgois, didn't want Keckly to travel "to New York to beg for money" to buy her freedom. Stating that she had given the matter some thought and that "it would be a shame to allow you to go North to beg for what we should give you. With the help of her patrons, she was able to gather the money to buy her and her son's freedom, and was emancipated in November of 1855. She made it very clear to all that the money that was given to her was an advance, and that she had all intentions of paying everyone back. She kept her promise, and chose to remain in St. Louis until this was accomplished.
During her final years in St. Louis, she also worked very hard at making progress in her business as well as personal life. She lost her mother in 1857, who was in Vicksburg with her mistress in her son Armistead Jr.'s house. With all of the tragedy she had experienced, she began to look beyond life in St. Louis. She tried to better her son's life by enrolling him in the newly established Wilberforce University, to help strengthen what she believed to be a very promising future. She also proceeded to make formal plans to leave St. Louis, and with her departure, would also leave her husband James behind as well after almost eight years of marriage.
Her departure from St. Louis in early 1860 took her to Baltimore, MD, where she had hoped to form "classes of young colored women" to teach them her system of cutting and fitting dresses. She said that her "scheme was not successful, for after six weeks of labor and vexation, I left Baltimore with scarcely money enough to pay my fare to Washington. At the time, Maryland was passing many strict and regressive laws regulating the free black population. Laws so restrictive, that it would have been extremely difficult to maneuver not only as a black person, but as a woman and an entrepreneur who had hopes of establsihing herself and her school. In her autobiography, she did not go into detail as to the reasons for her lack of success, but it may have been due to reasons of racial climate, and that Mrs. Keckly was way ahead of her time for Baltimore.
Journey to the Capital
In mid-1860, after finding herself unsuccessful in establishing her school in Baltimore, she planned to go to Washington, DC to start anew. She intended to work as a seamstress as she had done in St. Louis, yet, there was a troublesome obstacle in her way. Almost destitute from her time spent in Maryland, she lacked the money to be able to purchase a license for her to be able to remain in the city for more than thirty days. Always resourceful, she found a way through one of her patrons. Ms. Ringold used her connection to Mayor James G. Berret to petition for a license for Elizabeth, and upon her request granted her not only the license, but granted it free of charge.
With her new license, she was able to concentrate on networking and supporting herself more closely. Commissions for dresses were steadily coming in, but the dress that she completed for Mrs. Robert E. Lee sparked her rapid growth. She found most of her work with the women of society by word of mouth recommendations, and after doing several dresses, she came upon a commission that she almost let go.
Mrs. Margaret McLean of Maryland, who was introduced by way of Mrs. Varina Davis, approached Keckly with a demand to have a dress made. While Mrs. Keckly attempted to politely decline the work due her already heavy order commitments, Mrs. McLean would not accept no for an answer. She also stressed she needed to complete the dress urgently, all the while reminding her that she had the means to introduce Keckly to 'the people in the White House'. After working tirelessly, she finished the dress for Mrs. McLean, and the following week Mrs. McClean called for Keckly and instructed her to go to the the Lincoln's suite, where her presence had been requested by Mrs. Lincoln to arrange for an interview.
The White House Years
Elizabeth Keckly was introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln on Abraham Lincoln's day of inauguration, March 4, 1861. Mrs. Lincoln, in the midst of preparing for the day's festivities, instructed Keckly to return to the White House the following morning for her interview. Upon arrival, she was briefly disappointed to find other women there who were waiting for a chance to sell themselves, but her wariness was short-lived. After a few minutes, Mrs. Lincoln decisively declared that Keckly was to be her personal modiste, after learning that Keckly had worked for Mrs. Varina Davis. Upon leaving the White House that day, Keckly left with the first of many dresses that Mrs. Lincoln would require that she work on.
For the next six years, Keckly would become intimately involved with the First Family and their acquaintances. Due to the very demanding work requests of Mrs. Lincoln, within four months she would make around sixteen dresses for the First Lady, as well as be her personal dresser for levees and receptions. Known for being rather difficult to deal with (Abraham Lincoln admitted later in life that he thought that his wife may have been slightly mentally ill), it was the opinion of Rosetta Wells who stated that Keckly was "the only person in Washington who could get along with Mrs. Lincoln, when she became mad with anybody for talking about her and criticizing her husband." The years of training that Keckly had as a servant to many demanding people paired with her innate resiliency and strength is more than likely how she was able to handle Mrs. Lincoln's temperament in the beginning; but the friendship that grew out of the intimacy that was shared between them is what fostered a life-long loyalty to the First Lady.
During the Lincoln administration (and many years afterward), Keckly was the sole designer and creator of Mary Todd Lincoln's event wardrobe. Known for being outside of convention in her daring formal attire (which included off-the-shoulder and low-cut necklined dresses) and increasing critical commentary, Mrs. Lincoln enjoyed the attention and always wanted to be seen. In January 1862, Mrs. Lincoln posed at Brady's Washington Photography Studio, showing off two of Elizabeth Keckly's gowns. For several years to come, Mary Lincoln would attend many affairs and continue to pose for more portraits showcasing Keckly's talents, and both enjoyed mutual benefit from their close relationship. During this time, she herself would also enjoy semi-celebrity status within the black community, and used her various connections to establish the Contraband Relief Association; a group designed to help the suffering and disadvantaged black people. Keckly petitioned and solicited for donations, and received frequent contributions from both the President and the First Lady.
Commonality Through Tragedy
Upon arrival at the White House, the Lincoln's had two of their children to move in with them, William and Tad. Due to Keckly's intimate involvement with the family, she was privy to many of the trials of the family. As Keckly was a regular presence in the house, she also assumed domestic duties like looking after the children, including during periods of sickness. No stranger to loss, Keckly would serve as a steady and reliable source of strength and comfort for the family.
The second familial tragedy to fall upon the Lincoln's occurred roughly one year into their executive residency with the death of their third son, 'Willie' (the first being their second son Edward, who also died young at the age of 3), at age 11. Mary Lincoln was known to have dramatic outbursts and displays of emotion, and during this difficult time, Keckly was her mainstay of solace and comfort during her seclusion. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Lincoln, Keckly herself experienced the death of her only son George as well a few years prior. Keckly's noticeable hardiness made Mary Lincoln state how "remarkable" Keckly was after hearing Elizabeth's story for the first time at the time of Willie's death.
With regard to Keckly's son's death, the dynamics and polarities of the era made for some very interesting and at times precarious situations. Elizabeth's son George was killed in action on August 10, 1861, while serving as a soldier with the Union forces. Although black soldiers have fought in all of the wars in history the United States, enlistment as a black soldier was forbidden and was only available to white men. Due to his very fair and obviously 'passing' appearance, he was admitted to a regiment, but his service was unfortunately very short-lived. Upon his death, there was much more involved for Elizabeth than arranging for his interment.
In May of 1863, the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops to encourage the enlistment of black regiments, signaling a clear departure from the government's previous opposition to black enlistment . Due to a new law that entitled widows whose only sons were killed in action to apply for pensions, Keckly attempted to apply with the United States Pension Agency. However, due to George's enlistment as a white soldier, Elizabeth's application was now a problem because she was a black woman that was unable to pass. To circumvent this conundrum, she had to establish her son as black again, as well as confront the issue of his illegitimacy. Biographer Jennifer Fleischner stated that "having confronted the ironies of her country's racial laws, Lizzy had also to confront the ironies of marital laws. She testified how she, a black slave, and Alexander Kirkland, a free white man, had married; how he then had died, leaving her with their eighteen-month-old son; and how, after that, she had bought her freedom and married Mr. Keckly, a black man. It was about as unlikely a story as could be told, but everyone who witnessed the statement signed on to it." The plan worked, and by using her networking skills within the black community, she was able to procure the pension for an initial monthly amount of $8 (later raised to $12) for the remainder of her life.
Keckly and Lincoln's friendship was considerably strengthened upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Consumed with grief and despair, Mrs. Lincoln opted to seclude herself from the world and invite a chosen few into her quarters. When the assassination attempt occurred, Keckly was unaware of the happenings at the theatre. Some time after learning of the event, Keckly found it irresistible to seek out Mrs. Lincoln to be with her in her time of grief, yet due to security and commotion, was unable to reach her that night. The next day, Mary Lincoln was beside herself with agitation due to the unknown whereabouts of her closest friend, but the two did finally connect. Finding Lincoln in a critically delicate and unstable state, it would be Keckly who would yet again provide the solace, comfort, and reliability that Mrs. Lincoln so desperately required.
As with the previous occurrences of death in the Lincoln family, Mrs. Lincoln proceeded to rid herself of reminders of her husband by giving many personal items away to people close to her, including Mrs. Keckly. During the disposal process, Keckly acquired the cloak and bonnet that Mary Lincoln wore the night of the assassination (that was splattered with Lincoln's blood), as well as some of the President's personal grooming items.
Now her main source of strength and semblance of normalcy, Mrs. Lincoln insisted that Keckly accompany her to Chicago to assist her in her new life and myriad affairs. Roughly one week after the assassination, Keckly boarded a train with Mrs. Lincoln and the family en route to Illinois. She would only spend about three weeks there with Mary, as she had an increasingly promising business back in Washington, D.C., and needed to return to re-open her shop. A wise decision, her business flourished; so much so that she was able to open another shop. All the while, Mary Lincoln grew even more dependent upon Keckly now that there were hundreds of mile separating them and wrote frequent letters to Keckly inquiring of her plans, making visitation requests, and lamenting on her new unfortunate state of living. This period in both of their lives and their activities together would later serve as a most critical point in shaping their latter years.
Reasons Behind 'Behind The Scenes'
Aside from Keckly's initial notoriety as a successful and sought after modiste to the Washington elite, in her later years she would become a person of notoriety of a different kind. Mary Todd Lincoln was known for being a spitfire and unconventional (and unwanted) rebel of her time for several different reasons. Always outspoken and given to expressing her opinions in affairs that were not 'ladylike' (namely politics), her rousing behaviour was also exhibited in matters of personal economy. Mrs. Lincoln liked to have the best of the best, and with her power as First Lady she took advantage of as much as she could; with particular attention paid in the areas of dressing herself and the Executive Mansion.
During Abraham Lincoln's administration, Mrs. Lincoln consumed much, and accumulated a seriously large amount of debt due to her spending and 'charge to the house account'-type of activities. As First Lady, she was given such privilege, and she was always under the assumption that proprietors would be forgiving of her tabs, and if not, she would have access to pay them off using the President's salary. Never assuming that her husband would be killed before leaving office, her creditors were not as kind and lenient after Lincoln's death. Unbeknownst to many, Mrs. Lincoln had built a debt of roughly $70,000 (in 1865 dollars) that she now had to find a way to repay; and now she must do so with no source of income.
In 1867 Mrs. Lincoln wrote her dear friend Lizzy, asking her to help her dispose of her articles of value by accompanying her to New York to find a broker to handle the sales. In late September, they arrived in New York with Mrs. Lincoln using an alias for the duration of her visit, as to not apprise the public of her intentions. She was looking to quietly sell off as many of her things to raise money to live and repay her debts, but her efforts were not exactly fruitful. While in New York, Keckly attempted to help by giving interviews to newspapers sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln's plight and wrote letters to friends like Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet , a highly respected minister in the Black church community.
In a desperate attempt to help get money for the clothing, her brokers, Brady & Keyes, wanted to tour the country showing her items in a traveling exhibition where people would pay admission to view her garments and jewelry. Brady & Keyes did not notify Mrs. Lincoln of the plan, but as the authorities in their first stop of Providence, RI wold not allow the exhibition. Nonetheless, Mrs. Lincoln became very upset with the arrangement and requested that the items be returned immediately. To add to Mrs. Lincoln's distress, Elizabeth Keckly attempt to help her son's university rebuild after a building fire (that occurred on the same day as Lincoln's assassination) by donating her acquired Lincolniana to Wilberforce. This made matters worse, and the anger that Mrs. Lincoln expressed prevented Keckly from allowing the items to be exhibited in Europe as originally intended. This action strained their relationship a great deal, but they still remained in contact, although at greater distance.
Betrayal or Unintentional Casualty?
In an attempt to defend Mrs. Lincoln (and herself in the process), Elizabeth Keckly published Behind the Scenes in 1868 to "attempt to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world" and to "explain the motives" that guided Mrs. Lincoln's decisions regarding the "old clothes" scandal. Elizabeth enlisted the help of a man named James Redpath, an editor from New York and friend of Frederick Douglass to help Keckly edit and publish the book. Contrary to Mrs. Keckly's serious intentions, advertisements labeled the forthcoming book as a 'literary thunderbolt' and the publisher, Carleton & Company joined in by declaring it as a 'great sensational disclosure'. Dr. Fleischner writes in her book that, "Lizzy's intentions, like the spelling of her name, would thereafter be lost in history. At the age of fifty, she had violated Victorian codes not only of friendship and privacy, but of race, gender, and class. Not surprisingly, the newspapers that attacked Mary Lincoln in the fall, in the spring now leapt to her defense... The social threat represented by this black woman's agency also provoked other readers, and someone produced an ugly and viciously racist parody called "Behind the Seams; by a Nigger Woman who took work in from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Davis and signed with an "X," the mark of "Betsey Kickley (nigger)," denoting its supposed author's illiteracy."
Stunned and dismayed by the negative reaction, Keckly wrote letters and spoke out defiantly and stood her ground on the book's intent. A few months after all of the uproar, the sensationalism surrounding the book subsided, and reaped little in sales. It had been posited that Mrs. Lincoln's son Robert, who was perpetually agitated and embarrassed by his mother's behavior in private life (and would later have her committed in 1875) and did not want the public to know such personal happenings, may have been involved in actively suppressing the sale and distribution of the work.
With regard to Mrs. Lincoln's reaction, Mary felt betrayed and extremely disturbed by the work's public disclosure of private conversations and letters that were written to Keckly. Keckly explained that she too had been betrayed; that James Redpath violated her trust by printing the letters he asked her to 'lend' him without her consent and which he promised not to disclose. Regardless of whether or not Keckly's defense was received by Mrs. Lincoln, the now destitute and traduced former First Lady cast her out of her life, and scantly mentioned her name again. It was said that Mary felt as though Keckly had reduced herself to the likes of William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's former law partner and biographer of both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln who the Lincoln family believed to have been disingenuous in his actions and moved with less than favorable and selfish motives, with the desire of fame and fortune as a result. Having been subject to grief from death, torment and abuse from the press and the public, and 'betrayed' by her 'closest friend', Mrs. Lincoln sought refuge in Europe.
Elizabeth Keckly would continue to attempt to earn money by sewing and teaching young women her techniques, while many of her white clientele quietly stopped calling. Eventually Elizabeth was in great need of money, and in 1890 at age 72, she made a drastic decision: to sell the Lincoln articles that she kept for 35 years. Twenty-six articles were sold for $250, but it remains to be known how much Mrs. Keckly actually received. The years following Keckly would move a great deal, but in 1892 she was offered a faculty position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts and moved to Ohio.Within a year at age 75, she would organize a dress exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair, and by the late 1890's would return back to Washington to live in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children (an institution established in part by funds contributed by the contraband association that she founded) due to presumed health reasons.
Toward the end of her life, Keckly suffered from headaches and crying spells, very much like her estranged friend Mary had during many times in her life. She still had long term affection for Mary (Keckly would outlive Mary by 25 years), as evidenced by the photograph that hung on the wall in her room. Mrs. Keckly led a quiet and secluded life and, and though never confirmed, told friends that Mrs. Lincoln had attempted to re-establish their connection and that she was forgiven. In May of 1907, Mrs. Keckly passed away as a resident of the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, DC.
As written by Dr. Jennifer Fleischer: "Perhaps the most poignant illustration of the different fates of these two women is found in their final resting places. While Mary Lincoln lies buried in Springfield in a vault with her husband and sons, Elizabeth Keckly's remains have disappeared. In the 1960s, a developer paved over the Harmony Cemetery in Washington where Lizzy was buried, and when the graves were moved to a new cemetery, her unclaimed remains were placed in an unmarked grave—like those of her mother, slave father, and son."
District of Columbia
District Of Columbia, USA
A portrait of Elizabeth Keckley, by an unknown artist, from the frontispiece to her autobiography, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868).
"Keckley, Elizabeth." Online Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 Dec. 2007 <http://www.britannica.com/ebc/art-72085>.
Short Biography / Criticism
Best known as Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley was much more. Born a slave in 1818 to George and Agnes Hobbs, Keckley was a skilled seamstress who used her skills to buy her freedom in 1855 at the age of thirty-seven. At the same time, she also bought the freedom of her only child, George, who would later die as a soldier in the Union Army. George's father was a friend of the family that owned her and a local plantation owner, who as Keckley laments in Behind the Scenes, "had base designs upon me" (p.39). Over a four-year period, he sexually abused Keckley until she became pregnant.
Elizabeth Keckley was married once, to James Keckley in 1852, although it soon proved to be an unhappy and disappointing match. He lied to her about being a free man and proved to be an alcoholic unable to support his family. The marriage ended when she left him eight years later.
Over the year, Keckley worked as a seamstress for women from a number of elite southern and northern families, such as the wives of Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglass and, of course, Abraham Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckley was an uncommon woman who challenged the predominant stereotypes prevalent in the nineteenth century. She founded a school for young black girls in 1863, was president and founder of the First Black Contraband Relief Organization, and represented Wilberforce University at the 1893 Columbian World's Exhibition in Chicago. The event celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America.
Without a doubt, Elizabeth Keckley would have been lost to history if she had not written Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years A Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was the first personal account of life in the White House. It revealed the close relationship she formed with Mary Todd Lincoln, as a friend and confidante, and intimate details surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln.
The publication of the book in 1868 brought the wrath of Robert Lincoln, the oldest son of the late president and estrangement from her friend Mary Todd Lincoln. Robert Lincoln waged a successful campaign to have the book recalled and withdrawn from publication. She was also criticized roundly by the press and the general public, who found exception with the fact that a woman of color could presume a friendship with a white woman, notwithstanding the wife of President Lincoln.
In her final years, Keckley moved from Ohio, where she worked from 1892 until 1898 as a sewing instructor at Wilberforce University, back to Washington, DC. She lived at the Home for Destitute Women and Children, a home she helped establish, and survived on a monthly stipend of $12 as the mother of a son who served in the Union Army. Elizabeth Keckley died in 1907 at the age of 88 of a paralytic stroke.
Gown made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln, about 1864
Originally collected in 1916 for its associations with Mary Todd Lincoln, this purple velvet gown has received new attention from historians because of its connection with Elizabeth Keckley, an African American dressmaker and confidante of Mrs. Lincoln's. Born a slave in 1818, Keckley worked as a dressmaker in St. Louis, using her skills to buy freedom for herself and her son. After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1860, she built a successful career and became a prominent figure in the black community, organizing relief and educational programs for emancipated slaves. In 1868 she published Behind the Scenes, a memoir of her relationship with the first lady.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (ca. 1818-1907), United States of America, ca. 1860s.
Gift of Ross Trump in memory of his mother, Helen WattsTrump
According to American quilt historian Ruth Findlay, this quilt was made by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln's dresses. Mrs. Keckley, an African-American, was Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker and, while living in a boarding house in Washington, taught dressmaking to American-American women. She went on to teach Domestic Art in 1892 and 1893 at Wilberforce University in Ohio, the nation's oldest, private African-American university, before suffering from a stroke that ended her teacher career. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley had previously bought her freedom with money earned by dressmaking.