Few stories in Encyclopedia Virginia are more dramatic than that of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly. Born into slavery in Dinwiddie Courthouse, in the Piedmont region of Virginia, during the presidency of James Monroe, by the time that Abraham Lincoln entered the White House in 1861, not only was Keckly a free woman, but she was also Washington, D.C.’s most celebrated dressmaker.
It was Keckly’s talent with the needle that allowed her to buy her freedom and become a leader among the free Black community in Washington. She first found a following among Washington’s elite women after a silk dress she designed for Mary Randolph Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee, was a big hit at a reception for the Prince of Wales. It was a time when upper class women were fiercely competitive about the dresses they wore to balls and teas and receptions. It may seem like all vanity now, the hoop skirts with their ruffles and flounces and the yards of lace and other trim that bedecked the dresses of fashionable ladies, but it was also a way that women could yield power and display stature in a world that offered them few opportunities to express themselves.
It’s one of the great ironies of Keckly’s life that many of her early clients in Washington were southern women whose husbands would form the bedrock of the Confederacy and dedicate themselves to protecting the very slavery she fought to escape. Keckly worked extensively for Varina Howell Davis, the wife of then-Senator Jefferson Davis, in the fall and winter of 1860-1861. We can only imagine what this formerly enslaved woman was thinking as she spent afternoons at the Davis home fashioning dresses as the Davises and their visitors openly discussed the prospect of war. She stayed late on Christmas Eve to finish a silk dressing gown for Jeff Davis that, she later wrote, she had “not the shadow of a doubt” he wore “during the stormy years that he was the President of the Confederate States.”
Varina thought so highly of Keckly that she asked her to come south with her as slave state after slave state seceded from the Union and the Davis family prepared to leave Washington. She promised she would protect Keckly and held out the prospect of living in the White House once her husband became president of the South and the Confederates “raise[d] an army and march[ed] on Washington.” Ultimately, however, Keckly decided to “cast my lot among the people of the North.”
The Davises wouldn’t go to the White House, but Keckly would. One of her clients arranged an interview with Mary Todd Lincoln, famously insecure and brittlely vain, who was searching for a dressmaker to create a wardrobe that would announce her arrival on the Washington social scene. Mary Lincoln hired her on the spot and the first dress Keckly made for her, a “bright rose-colored moire-antique,” was a hit and bolstered the First Lady’s fragile self-confidence.
Keckly would become more than just a designer and seamstress for the socially isolated First Lady. She would become her confidante and her source of solace when first her son Willie and then her husband were snatched from her.
Keckly’s story would have been largely lost if not for her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, published in 1868. You can read about Keckly’s dramatic life, including her journey out of slavery, in Encyclopedia Virginia’s new Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly entry, contributed by Jennifer Fleischner, the author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave. In addition to reading about Keckly’s life, you can see a rare image of her sewing kit or read excerpts from Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.