Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (February 1818 – May 1907) (sometimes spelled Keckly)  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. Keckley 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 several years in St. Louis, she moved to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1860. Utilizing both perseverance and an ability to ingratiate herself with those of influence, she was able to distinguish herself among notable women of society in the nation’s capitol who sought out her dressmaking skills. Among her clients were Varnia Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, and Mary Anne Randolph Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee.
Keckly’s relationship with the President’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln was the most noteworthy as it was distinguished not only by its endurance over time but the nature of the association. A mutual respect and trust was established between the two women and Keckly was not only dressmaker to the First Lady, but an invaluable confidante to Mrs. Lincoln in times of emotional crisis.
Elizabeth Keckly was born a slave in February 1818 in Dinwiddie County Court House, Dinwiddie, Virginia, just south of Petersburg. Her mother, Agnes, was a slave, owned by Armistead and Mary Burwell. ‘Aggy’ as she was called, was considered a ‘privileged slave’, learning to read and write despite the fact that it was illegal for slaves to do so. Her biological father, whose real identity was revealed to her later on in life, was Armistead Burwell. In fact, Keckley didn’t find out that Armistead Burwell was her father until her mother was on her death bed, and announced it to her.
The exact nature of the relationship between Agnes and Burwell is unknown. Agnes was later permitted to marry George Pleasant Hobbs. George Hobbs was also a literate slave, residing at the home of a neighbor during Elizabeth Keckley’s early childhood. Hobbs was eventually estranged from his wife and stepdaughter when his owner moved far away.
Keckley resided in the Burwell house with her mother, and began official duties at age five when it was decided that, because the Burwells had four other children under the age of ten, she would become the nursemaid for their infant daughter, Elizabeth Margaret. Taking on the responsibility 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 Keckley had to endure.
In 1832, at age fourteen, Keckley was sent to live “on generous loan” with the eldest Burwell son, Robert, and his wife, Margaret Anna Robertson, in Chesterfield County, Virginia, near Petersburg. Burwell’s wife demonstrated particular contempt for Elizabeth, and made home life for the next four years most uncomfortable for her. Keckley mentioned that Mrs. Burwell seemed ‘desirous to wreak vengeance’ upon her, and enlisted the help of their neighbor William J. Bingham to help subdue her “stubborn pride”. Despite the hardships she endured, Keckley wrote many letters during her time there.
When Keckley was eighteen, Bingham called her to his quarters for unexplained reasons and ordered her to undress so that he could beat her. Keckley 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.
One week later, Mr. Bingham attacked her again and flogged her until he was exhausted. 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 had a change of heart, “burst[ing] into tears, and declar[ing] that it would be a sin” to beat her anymore. He stopped beating her, asked for her forgiveness. Unfortunately, Robert Burwell began to beat her. Keckley refused to show emotion and after a few furious beatings he also declared that he would beat her no longer. Keckley claims that he kept his word.
Keckley then became the victim of sexual abuse while living in Hillsborough, North Carolina. For four years, a man by the name of Alexander M. Kirkland forced a sexual relationship upon Keckley, which she said caused “suffering and deep mortification” She ended up bearing a son by Kirkland, naming the child George after her stepfather. George was later killed in action on August 10, 1861, while serving as a soldier with the Union forces. After many difficulties in establishing her son’s racial identity (George passed as white in order to serve in the Union Army), Keckley was able to procure a pension for an initial monthly amount of $8 (later raised to $12) for the remainder of her life.
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. Due to financial difficulties in the Garland family, several decisions were made in order to support the large family and slave inventory. Some of the slave children were sold, and some were hired out, but Keckley and her mother remained with their mistress. After many moves, in 1847 the Garlands 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. Keckley would eventually create opportunities for herself in St. Louis. Working for nearly twelve years in St. Louis afforded her the opportunities to mingle with a rather large free black population as well as establish connections that she would use to become a dressmaker for the town’s white upperclass women.
Keckley met her future husband, James, but refused to marry him until she and her son were free. With marriage in mind, she began her campaign for freedom. She approached Hugh Garland and asked if she could manumit herself and her son. Garland flatly refused. Determined to not let the subject rest, she kept trying to get permission for two years. In 1852, Garland agreed to release them for $1,200.
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.” One of her patrons, Mrs. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Le Bourgeois, didn’t want Keckley 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 1855. Keckley kept her promise to repay her patrons, choosing to remain in St. Louis until this was accomplished.
During her final years in St. Louis, Keckley worked very hard at making progress in her business as well as personal life. Keckley began to look beyond life in St. Louis. She enrolled her son in the newly established Wilberforce University. She also proceeded to make formal plans to leave St. Louis, leaving her husband after almost eight years of marriage.
Her departure from St. Louis in early 1860 took her to Baltimore, Maryland, 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 repressive laws in order to control the free blacks within the state. In her autobiography, she did not go into detail as to the reasons for her lack of success but a combination of racism, sexism, and class prejudices most likely played a role.
Journey to the Capital
In mid-1860, after finding herself unsuccessful in establishing her school in Baltimore, Keckley planned to go to Washington, D.C. to start a new life. 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, Keckley found a way through one of her patrons. A Ms. Ringold used her connection to Mayor James G. Berret to petition for a license for Elizabeth; upon her request Berrett not only granted her the license, but granted it free of charge.
With her new license, she was able to concentrate more closely on networking and supporting herself. Commissions for dresses were steadily coming in, but the dress that she completed for Mrs. Robert E. Lee sparked her business’ rapid growth. Keckley found most of her work with the women of society by word-of-mouth recommendations; after completing 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 Keckley with a demand to have a dress made. Keckley attempted to politely decline the work, because of her already heavy order commitments. However, 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 Keckley to ‘the people in the White House’. After working tirelessly, Keckley finished the dress for Mrs. McLean, and the following week Mrs. McLean called for Keckley and instructed her to go to the Lincolns’ suite, where her presence had been requested by Mrs. Lincoln.
The White House years
Elizabeth Keckley was introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln on March 4, 1861, the day of Abraham Lincoln‘s first inauguration. Mrs. Lincoln, in the midst of preparing for the day’s festivities, requested that Keckley return to the White House the following morning for an interview. Upon arrival, Keckley was dismayed to find other women assembled, all competing to win favor with the new First Lady. For Keckley the day was triumphant—Mrs. Lincoln had chosen her for the position of personal modiste. Leaving the White House that day, Keckley carried with her the first of many dresses for which Mrs. Lincoln would require the seamstress’s dress making expertise.
For the next six years, Keckley would become an intimate witness to the private life of the First Family. In addition to utilizing her inestimable dress making skills, Keckley’s other responsibility was to assist Mrs. Lincoln at the start of each day acting as her personal dresser. This function extended to aiding Mrs. Lincoln as she prepared for her appearance at official receptions and other social events. Mrs. Lincoln who was known for her love of fashion, kept Keckley busy maintaining and executing new creations for the First Lady’s increasingly extensive wardrobe. Within four months Keckley completed approximately sixteen dresses. Mrs. Lincoln, a woman plagued by anxieties, emotional problems, and subject to inconsistent moods, could be difficult to deal with. It was the opinion of Rosetta Wells that Keckley 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 friendship that grew out of the intimacy that was shared between the two women is what fostered Keckley’s life-long loyalty to the First Lady.
During the Lincoln administration (and many years afterward), Keckley was the sole designer and creator of Mary Todd Lincoln’s event wardrobe. In January 1862, Mrs. Lincoln posed at Brady’s Washington Photography Studio, showing off two of Elizabeth Keckley’s gowns. For several years to come, Mary Lincoln would attend many affairs and continue to pose for more portraits showcasing Keckley’s talents.
During this time, Keckley 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 suffering and disadvantaged black people. Keckley petitioned and solicited for donations, receiving frequent contributions from both the President and the First Lady.
Contraband Relief Association
Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862. The organization changed its name in July 1864 to the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldier’s Relief Association to “reflect its expanded mission.” The CRA provided food, shelter, clothing, and emotional support to recently freed slaves and/or sick and wounded soldiers. The organization was based in Washington D.C., but the funds distributed and the services provided surpassed county lines. Although the Contraband Relief Association has been disremembered, the organization set the standards and exposed the need for relief organizations in the realm of providing aid to the economically deprived and physically displaced black community. The Contraband Relief Association networked rigorously within the black community and this yielded black autonomy. Through intra-ethnic networking the Contraband Relief Association was able to achieve their mission of creating an organization by and for African Americans.
In Keckley’s autobiography, she verbalized the circumstance of contrabands within Washington D.C. Keckley wrote that ex-slaves were not going to find “flowery paths, days of perpetual sunshine, and bowers hanging with golden fruit” in Washington D.C. but that” the road was rugged and full of thorns.” With her own eyes she saw that “[their] appeal for help too often was answered by cold neglect.” Because Keckley had experienced slavery herself, she was empathetic towards former slaves and wanted to do something in order to relieve their suffering. One summer evening, Keckley witnessed “a festival given for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers in the city.” Consequently, she questioned that if “white people can give festivals to raise funds for the relief of the suffering soldiers, why should not the well-to-do colored people go to work to do something for the benefit of the suffering blacks?” Keckley suggested to her colored friends “a society of colored people be formed to labor for the benefit of the unfortunate freedmen.” Her idea generated support, and in August 1862 the Contraband Relief Association was founded.
The CRA utilized black religious spaces such as the Twelfth Baptist Church, Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Siloam Presbyterian Church. The organization held fundraisers such as old folk’s concerts, speeches, dramatic readings, and festivals at these particular religious spaces. Some of the prominent black figures who spoke on behalf of the organization included Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, J. Sella Martin,and Wendell Phillips.
The CRA’s receipts were “$838.68 the first year and $1,228.43 the second year. 5,150 articles of clothing had been received during that time.” According to the first annual report the organization did indeed establish an organization “by and for black people.” The CRA affirmed that “every effort made by us to obtain funds to alleviate in any way the distresses of our afflicted brethren has been crowned with success.” Out of the $838.68, approximately $600 was given by and raised by black ran and/or predominately black organizations such as the Freedmen’s Relief Association of District of Columbia, Fugitive Aid Society of Boston, Waiters of Metropolitan Hotel, and the Young Misses of Baltimore.
Keckley exclaimed that the CRA was formed “for the purpose, not only of relieving he wants of those destitute people, but also to sympathize with, and advise them,” and the CRA fulfilled their purpose. The CRA distributed clothes, food, and shelter amongst the freedmen. The CRA sent funds to many freedmen. Jean Fagan Yellin notes that the CRA sent $50 to the sick and wounded soldier’s at Alexandria. The CRA hosted Christmas dinners for sick and wounded soldiers. The organization distributed food to other organizations. In addition to the tangible items distributed by the CRA, the organization helped to place African American teachers in the newly built schools. The entire community had recognized, valued, and thanked “the officers and the members of the Association for their kindness and attentive duties to the sick and wounded;” yet the organization has escaped public history. The Contraband Relief Association was implemented and run by African Americans; however, the legacy of the organization did not survive to become a legacy for generations to follow.
Commonality through tragedy
Upon arrival at the White House, the Lincolns had two young children, William and Tad. Due to Keckley’s intimate involvement with the family, she was privy to many of the trials of the family. She also assumed domestic duties like looking after the children, including during periods of sickness. No stranger to loss, Keckley would serve as a steady and reliable source of strength and comfort for the family after the two boys died.
Keckley also comforted the First Lady after the President’s assassination. Consumed with grief and despair, Mrs. Lincoln opted to seclude herself from the world and invite a chosen few into her quarters. Finding Lincoln in a critically delicate and unstable state, Keckley would yet again provide the solace, comfort, and reliability that Mrs. Lincoln so desperately required.
Mrs. Lincoln proceeded to rid herself of reminders of her husband by giving many personal items away to people close to her, including Mrs. Keckley. During the disposal process, Keckley acquired the blood-spattered cloak and bonnet that Mary Lincoln wore the night of the assassination, as well as some of the President’s personal grooming items.
Mrs. Lincoln insisted that Keckley accompany her to Chicago to assist her in her new life and myriad affairs. Roughly one month after the assassination, Keckley boarded a train with Mrs. Lincoln and the family en route to Illinois. She would spend only about three weeks there with Mrs. Lincoln, as she had an increasingly promising business back in Washington, D.C., and needed to return to re-open her shop. All the while, Mary Lincoln grew even more dependent upon Keckley now that there were hundreds of miles separating them and wrote frequent letters to Keckley 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.
Behind The Scenes
In 1867, Mrs. Lincoln, who was deeply in debt due to extravagant spending, wrote to Keckley, 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. While in New York, Keckley 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.
Elizabeth Keckley then attempted to help her son’s university rebuild after a building fire by donating her Lincoln memorabilia to Wilberforce. The anger that Mrs. Lincoln expressed over this prevented Keckley from allowing the items to be exhibited in Europe as originally intended. This incident strained their relationship a great deal, but they still remained in contact, although at greater distance.
In an attempt to defend Mrs. Lincoln (and herself), Elizabeth Keckley 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 Keckley edit and publish the book. Contrary to Mrs. Keckley’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, Keckley wrote letters and spoke out defiantly and stood her ground on the book’s intent. A few months after its publication, the uproar over the book subsided. The book did not sell well. 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), did not want the public to know such intimate details about his mother’s life. He may have been involved in suppressing the sale and distribution of the work.
With regard to Mrs. Lincoln’s reaction, Mrs. Lincoln felt betrayed and extremely disturbed by the work’s public disclosure of private conversations and letters that were written to Keckley. Keckley 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 Keckley’s defense was received by Mrs. Lincoln, the now destitute former First Lady permanently severed contact with Keckley. In July 1869, during a European trip, Mrs. Lincoln was pleased to come across Sally Orne, a good friend from her Washington days. The two women spent every moment together reminiscing about the past and lamenting the present. Not since she had last seen Keckley had Mrs. Lincoln had the pleasant company and undivided attention of an old friend.
Elizabeth Keckley would continue to attempt to earn money by sewing and teaching young women her techniques, while much of her white clientele quietly stopped calling. Eventually Elizabeth was in great need of money, and in 1890 at age seventy-two, she made a drastic decision: to sell the Lincoln articles that she kept for thirty-five years. Twenty-six articles were sold for $250, but it remains to be known how much Mrs. Keckley actually received. The years following Keckley 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, she would organize a dress exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, and by the late 1890s 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, Keckley suffered from headaches and crying spells, very much like her estranged friend Mrs. Lincoln had during many times in her life. She still had long term affection for the First Lady, evidenced by the photograph that hung on the wall in her room. Mrs. Keckley led a quiet and secluded life and, though never confirmed, told friends that Mrs. Lincoln had attempted to re-establish their connection and that she was forgiven.
In May 1907, Mrs. Keckley died as a resident of the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, DC. That home was located on Euclid St. NW. There is a plaque across the street from the location commemorating her life.
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 Keckley’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.”
The dress that Lincoln commissioned Keckley to design for her husband’s inauguration is housed in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. Keckley also designed a quilt made from scraps of materials left over from dresses made for Mrs. Lincoln which is housed at the Kent State University Museum and pictured in the book, “The Threads of Time, The Fabric of History“, by R. E. Reed Miller, 2007.