Author: Jennifer Fleischner

author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (1818–1907)

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly was born enslaved in Dinwiddie County in 1818. For more than thirty-seven years, she labored for three different branches of the Armistead Burwell family. At fourteen, she began ten years of bondage in the household of Burwell’s eldest son, a minister in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where she endured repeated physical abuse and sexual assaults and eventually gave birth to a son. Sent back to Virginia, she was enslaved in the household of Anne Burwell Garland and her husband, Hugh Garland. In 1847, Garland moved his household to St. Louis. By then a skilled seamstress, Keckly was hired out as a dressmaker to support the impoverished family. After several years of negotiations, Garland agreed to Keckly’s proposal to buy her and her son’s freedom. Keckly married James Keckly, with whom she lived in St. Louis for eight years. In 1860, Keckly left her husband and moved to Washington, D.C., where she established herself as a seamstress to the capital’s elite, including leading Southerners who joined the Confederacy during the secession winter of 1860–1861. In March 1861, Mary Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, hired her as a dressmaker. Keckly spent the American Civil War (1861–1865) years employed by the Lincoln White House, where she was known not only as Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker but also as her trusted confidante. Keckly also maintained a sewing business, through which she promoted the Black women she employed and trained to sew. She was also a prominent activist on behalf of freed Black people, notably as founder of the Contraband Relief Association. In 1868, three years after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Keckly published her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Its publication caused a permanent rift with Mary Lincoln. During the years that followed, Keckly maintained her business, although with less success. In the 1890s, she taught sewing and domestic science at Wilberforce University in Ohio until illness forced her to retire, and she returned to Washington, D.C. She died in 1907 in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.

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