About Elizabeth Keckley
Rags to riches are not at all what it seems in the case of Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley Hobbs. This extraordinary woman, born through an allegedly forced sexual relationship and into slavery, certainly didn’t let her upbringing define her and her situation. Keckley played a pivotal role in dressmaking, as well as the civil rights movement.
Elizabeth Keckley was born enslaved and under unusual circumstances to a plantation owner and one of his slaves in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. Elizabeth was given the name of her mother’s enslaved husband. He cared for Elizabeth as his own, despite not being her father. She was raised and enslaved on the plantation of the Burwell’s. Elizabeth’s mother was the Burwell’s seamstress, and she taught Elizabeth how to sew as well.
At 14, Elizabeth was briefly separated from her mother in Virginia and sent to North Carolina, to live with the Burwell family’s eldest son. While she was there, she was forced into sexual relations by a local market owner, to which she had a son. She was moved around several times before she landed in St. Louis, where she worked to help pay off her slavemaster’s debts. However, Elizabeth wanted her freedom, so she worked up a deal.
Designer, Confidante, and Activist
With Elizabeth’s skills, ability to promote herself, and the Burwell’s connections, she was able to take orders from the “best ladies in St. Louis” where she stayed for 10 years working as a seamstress. She was married briefly, but they soon separated. Nonetheless, Elizabeth wanted to settle her debts to live a free life with her son, but her money earned through dressmaking belonged to her owners, so she planned to move to New York to raise more money. Many of her patrons donated to her freedom fund, so she stayed in St. Louis for 5 years more until she paid off the debts to her donors. In 1855, she settled her debts and became a free black woman.
In 1860 she moved to Washington D.C, where she was connected with powerful clients who helped her get started in her new home. It was through one of Elizabeth’s patrons she first met Mary Todd Lincoln. She became her seamstress and was able to open up her dress shop and employ 20 assistants. As years passed, Elizabeth became Mary’s confidant. Both women bonded over shared tragedy, as Mary’s son, Willie, succumbed to typhoid fever just six months after Elizabeth’s son passed away while enlisted in the Union Army. They traveled together and grew very close as Elizabeth remained Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker and stylist.
In 1862 Elizabeth founded the Contraband Relief Association, which provided food, and shelter to enslaved refugees to help them start new lives. The Lincolns, as well as Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips were supporters of her association.
Their friendship remained steady until Lincoln’s devastating murder. Frustration grew between Mary and Elizabeth as disagreements came up regarding Lincoln’s relics, but the feud did not die out; it only got stronger. As Elizabeth continued her sewing business, she was also writing a memoir that documented her story of enslavement. It brought many of her White House encounters with the Lincolns and other prestigious figures to light, which was seen as a breach of privacy to the First Lady. Overall, Keckley’s memoir was not received well and ultimately ended her friendship with Mary Lincoln. It wasn’t long before her memoir became the news of the distant past.
The feud ended their relationship, but Keckley continued designing and educating black women to sew. Some years later, in 1892, she became the head of sewing at Wilberforce University. She died in 1907 and lived to be 89 years old, having lived a remarkable life.