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.