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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Renee

Elizabeth Keckley | Dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln

Celebrated dressmaker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1892) was born enslaved and went on to author a memoir "Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House" and serve as a witness to some of history's most prominent moments.

Elizabeth was born to Agnes Hobbs and Armistead Burwell, a colonel who enslaved her mother. Given the circumstances of her birth, it's believed that Elizabeth's conception was non-consensual. She was raised in Virginia by her mother and stepfather, George Pleasant Hobbs.

Throughout her childhood, Elizabeth studied sewing under her mother. At 14, she was sent to North Carolina to work for Burwell's son where she suffered horrible treatment and was raped, resulting in a son she would name George.

Eventually, Elizabeth returned to Virginia and joined the household of Hugh Garland. The household moved to St. Louis, and financial hardships ensued. When Garland threatened to have Elizabeth's mother work outside the home to help the family, Elizabeth volunteered to find work instead, eventually becoming a dressmaker.

In 1850, a free Black man, James Keckley, visited Elizabeth and proposed marriage. Elizabeth negotiated and secured an agreement with her enslaver, allowing her to buy freedom for herself and her son.

Not long after manumission, Elizabeth and James separated. But she remained in St. Louis, working to pay back loans she had taken to escape bondage. Once she paid back these debts, she moved to Washington, D.C.

Shortly after Elizabeth established herself in D.C., an existing dressmaking client offered to recommend her to the newly installed First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln was impressed with Elizabeth's work and began employing her regularly.

The relationship between these two women grew, and Elizabeth became a regular fixture in the Lincoln White House. Following her husband's assassination, Mrs. Lincoln sent for Elizabeth for comfort, which is a testament to the strength of their bond. Their relationship would later become strained after Mrs. Lincoln faced financial difficulties, and some of the dresses she'd asked Elizabeth to sell were instead donated.

During her time in D.C., Elizabeth worked with the Contraband Relief Association, an organization dedicated to helping enslaved individuals who sought refuge in Washington, D.C.

Three years after the Lincolns left the White House, Elizabeth published her memoir Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. In 1892, Elizabeth took a position at Wilberforce University teaching sewing and domestic science.



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