About Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (February 1818 – May 1907) (sometimes spelled Keckly) was a former slave who became a successful seamstress, civic activist and author in Washington, DC. She was best known as the personal modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady. Keckley had moved to Washington in 1860 after buying her freedom and that of her son in St. Louis. She created an independent business in the capital based on clients who were the wives of the government elite. Among them were Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis; and Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee.
After the American Civil War, Keckley wrote and published an autobiography, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868). It was both a slave narrative and a portrait of the First Family, especially Mary Todd Lincoln, and considered controversial for breaking privacy about them. It was also her claim as a businesswoman to be part of the new mixed-race, educated middle-class that was visible among the leadership of the black community.
Keckly's relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, the President's wife, was notable for its personal quality and intimacy, as well as its endurance over time.
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 house slave owned by Armistead and Mary Burwell. 'Aggy' as she was called, was a 'privileged slave', as she had learned to read and write although it was illegal for slaves to do so. Elizabeth's biological father, whose identity was revealed to her only late in life, was her master Armistead Burwell, a planter and colonel in the War of 1812. Keckley's mother did not tell her the father's identity until on her deathbed, although it was obvious by Elizabeth's appearance that he was white.
The nature of the relationship between Agnes and Burwell is unknown. He later permitted Agnes to marry George Pleasant Hobbs. He was a literate slave who lived and worked at the home of a neighbor during Elizabeth Keckley's early childhood. When his owner decided to move far away, Hobbs was taken away from his wife and stepdaughter.
Keckley lived in the Burwell house with her mother, and began official duties at age five. As the Burwells had four children under the age of ten, Mary assigned Elizabeth as the nursemaid for their infant Elizabeth Margaret. Forced into major responsibility as a young child, Keckley was subject to punishment for failing to care properly for the baby. One day, she accidentally tipped the cradle over too far, and the infant rolled onto the floor. Mary Burwell beat her severely.
In 1832, at age fourteen, Keckley was sent to live "on generous loan" with the eldest Burwell son Robert when he married Margaret Anna Robertson, in Chesterfield County, Virginia, near Petersburg. Burwell's wife expressed contempt for Elizabeth, and made home life for the next four years uncomfortable for her. They moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina, where Robert was a minister and teacher at the Burwell School. Keckley mentioned that Mrs. Burwell seemed 'desirous to wreak vengeance' upon her. Keckley still wrote letters to her mother during her time there.
Margaret Burwell enlisted a neighbor, William J. Bingham, to help subdue the girl's "stubborn pride". When Keckley was eighteen, Bingham called her to his quarters and ordered her to undress so that he could beat her. Keckley refused, saying she was fully grown, and you "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." Bingham bound her hands and beat her, and Elizabeth was sent back to her master with bleeding welts upon her back. A week later, Bingham flogged her again until he was exhausted. During these beatings, Elizabeth suppressed her tears and cries. 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 asked for her forgiveness and said that he would not beat her again. Keckley claims that he kept his word.
In Hillsborough, for four years, Alexander M. Kirkland, a prominent white man of the community, forced a sexual relationship on Elizabeth, which she said caused "suffering and deep mortification." She bore a son by Kirkland, naming the child George after her stepfather. After the boy was born in 1839, Keckley was returned to Virginia, where she served Ann Burwell Garland and her husband.
Road to freedom
Due to financial difficulties in the Garland family, they sold some slave children and "hired out" others, collecting the fees of their wages. Keckley and her mother remained with their mistress Anne Garland and her husband. Keckely's sewing helped support the family.
After many moves, in 1847 the Garlands moved to St. Louis, taking Aggie and Elizabeth with them. They cared for the children and did all the family sewing. Living and working for nearly twelve years in St. Louis enabled Keckley the chance to mingle with its large free black population. She also established connections with women in the white community which she drew on as a free dressmaker.
Keckley met her future husband, James, in St. Louis, but refused to marry him until she and her son were free. She asked Hugh Garland if he would free her and her son, but he refused. Persistent, she worked for two years to persuade him to free them. In 1852, Garland agreed to release them for the price of $1,200.
Keckley considered going to New York to try to "appeal to the benevolence of the people." According to Keckley, her patroness, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Le Bourgeois, said, "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, Keckley collected the money to buy her and her son's freedom, and was manumitted in November 1855. Keckley had promised to repay her patrons, and stayed in St. Louis until she had earned enough to do so.
Keckley worked hard in her business as well as personal life. Looking beyond life in St. Louis, she enrolled her son in the newly established Wilberforce University. She also made plans to leave St. Louis and James Keckley.
In early 1860 she and her son moved to Baltimore, Maryland. She intended to run classes for young "colored women" to teach her system of cutting and fitting dresses. She was not successful; after six weeks had hardly enough money to get to Washington, DC, which she thought might offer better chances for work." At the time, Maryland was passing many repressive laws against free blacks.
Move to the Capital
In mid-1860, Keckley intended to work as a seamstress in Washington, but lacked the money to pay for the required license as a free black to remain in the city for more than 30 days. Keckley appealed to her patrons, and a Ms. Ringold used her connection to Mayor James G. Berret to petition for a license for Keckley. Berrtt granted it to her free of charge.
Keckly worked to establish clients and gain enough work to support herself. Commissions for dresses were steadily coming in, but a dress that she completed for Mrs. Robert E. Lee sparked her business' rapid growth. Keckley found most of her work with society women by word-of-mouth recommendations.
Margaret McLean of Maryland, introduced by Varina Davis, requested a dress from Keckley and said she needed it urgently. Keckley declined, as she had heavy order commitments. Mrs. McLean offered to introduce Keckley to "the people in the White House", the newly elected president Abraham Lincoln and his wife. Keckley finished the dress for McLean, who arranged a meeting the following week for her with Mrs. Lincoln.
The White House years
Elizabeth Keckley met Mary Todd Lincoln on March 4, 1861, the day of Abraham Lincoln's first inauguration. As she was preparing for the day's events, Mrs. Lincoln asked Keckley to return the next day for an interview. When she arrived, Keckley found other women there to be interviewed as well, but Mrs. Lincoln chose her as her personal modiste.
In addition to dressmaking, Keckley assisted Mrs. Lincoln each day as her personal dresser. She also helped Mrs. Lincoln prepare for official receptions and other social events. For the next six years, Keckley became an intimate witness to the private life of the First Family. Known for her love of fashion, the First Lady kept Keckley busy maintaining and creating new pieces for her extensive wardrobe. Within four months, Keckley made approximately sixteen dresses. Mrs. Lincoln was known to be difficult. Rosetta Wells said 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." Their friendship fostered Keckley's lifelong 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 went for photos to Brady's Washington Photography Studio, where she had images taken while wearing two of Keckley's gowns. For several years to come, she wore Keckley's dresses to many official events and had more portraits taken while wearing her work.
Within the free black community, Keckley enjoyed semi-celebrity status. She helped establish the Contraband Relief Association in 1862, to raise money for former slaves who had come to Union lines.
Contraband Relief Association
Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862, receiving donations from both Lincolns, as well as other white patrons and well-to-do free blacks. The organization changed its name in July 1864 to the Ladies' Freedmen and Soldier's Relief Association to "reflect its expanded mission" after blacks started serving in the United States Colored Troops. 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 helped families in the larger region. The Contraband Relief Association became lost to history, but it set the standards and showed the need for relief organizations to provide aid to the poor and displaced black community. The work of the Contraband Relief Association within the black community helped create black autonomy. Through intra-ethnic networking, the Association created an organization by and for African Americans.
Keckley wrote about the contrabands in Washington D.C. in her autobiography. She said 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." She saw that "[their] appeal for help too often was answered by cold neglect." One summer evening, Keckley witnessed "a festival given for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers in the city," which whites organized. She thought the free blacks could do something similar to benefit the poor and suggested to her colored friends "a society of colored people be formed to labor for the benefit of the unfortunate freedmen."
The CRA used the independent black churches for meetings and events, such as the Twelfth Baptist Church, Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Siloam Presbyterian Church. The organization held fundraisers, with concerts, speeches, dramatic readings, and festivals. 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." The CRA affirmed in its first annual report 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.
The CRA distributed clothes, food, and shelter amongst the freedmen and sent funds to many. Jean Fagan Yellin notes that the CRA sent $50 to the sick and wounded soldiers at Alexandria, Virginia. The CRA hosted Christmas dinners for sick and wounded soldiers. It distributed food to other organizations. The organization helped to place African-American teachers in the newly built schools for blacks. 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;" but it was overlooked in later histories.
Commonality through tragedy
When Keckley began working at the White House, the Lincolns had two young children, William and Tad. She sometimes was given domestic duties such as looking after the children, including during periods of sickness. Keckley was a source of strength and comfort for the Lincolns after the two boys died.
Her own son George Kirkland, who was more than three-quarters white, enlisted as a white in the Union Army in 1861 after the war broke out. He was killed in action on August 10, 1861. After difficulties in establishing her son's racial identity, Keckley gained a pension as his survivor; it was $8 monthly (later raised to $12) for the remainder of her life.
Keckley also comforted the First Lady after the President's assassination. Mrs. Lincoln became secluded, allowing only a few into her quarters. Finding Lincoln in a critically delicate state, Keckley stood by her to give comfort. Mrs. Lincoln gave away many of her husband's personal items to people close to her, including Keckley. Keckley acquired Mary Lincoln's blood-spattered cloak and bonnet from 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 Chicago. She spent about three weeks with Mrs. Lincoln, as she needed to return to the capital to take care of her business. Mary Lincoln grew more dependent upon Keckley, writing her frequently, asking for visits, and lamenting her new conditions. This period was critical to their later friendship.
Behind The Scenes
In 1867, Mrs. Lincoln, who was deeply in debt because of extravagant spending, wrote to Keckley, asking for help in disposing of articles of value, including old clothes, by accompanying her to New York to find a broker to handle the sales. In late September, they arrived in New York, where Mrs. Lincoln used an alias for the duration of her visit. 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. The fund raising effort became publicly known, and Mrs. Lincoln was severely criticized for selling clothes and other items associated with her husband's presidency.
Elizabeth Keckley donated her Lincoln memorabilia to Wilberforce College for its sale in fundraising to rebuild after a fire in 1865. Mrs. Lincoln was angry about her action, and Keckley changed her original intention to have the articles publicly displayed for fees in Europe. The publicity and criticism of Mrs. Lincoln strained their relationship, but they remained in contact, although not so close.
In 1868, Elizabeth Keckley published Behind the Scenes, 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 what became known as the "old clothes scandal". She gained the help of James Redpath, an editor from New York and friend of Frederick Douglass, to help her edit and publish her book.
Keckley described her own rise from slavery to life as a middle-class businesswoman who employed staff to help complete her projects. She was claiming a part in the educated, mixed-race middle class of the black community. She emphasized her ability to overcome difficulties and the development of her business sense. While acknowledging the brutalities under slavery and the sexual abuse that led to the birth of her son George, she spent little time on those events. This was in contrast to other women's slave narratives, in which they revealed white men taking sexual advantage of them. Essentially she "veiled" her own past but, using alternating chapters, contrasted her life with that of Mary Todd Lincoln and "unveiled" the former First Lady, as she noted her debts.
Keckley wrote about the Lincolns, in a style of near hagiography for him, but with a cool, analytical eye for Mary Lincoln. Advertisements labeled the forthcoming book as a 'literary thunderbolt' and the publisher, Carleton & Company, joined in by declaring it as a 'great sensational disclosure'. The editor included letters from Mary Lincoln to Keckley in the book, and the seamstress was strongly criticized for violating Mrs. Lincoln's privacy.
At a time when the white middle class struggled over "genteel performance", Keckley unveiled a white woman by the very title of her book, showing what went on behind the public scenes and revealing "private, domestic information involving, primarily, white women." The Lincolns had been subject to criticism as westerners early in his presidency, and Mary Todd Lincoln's anxiety about their position led to her trying to dress right and conduct the White House well. Critics such as Carolyn Soriso have identified Keckley's unveiling of Lincoln as the reason that the book generated such a backlash. A reviewer from the "Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer declared that they were pleased that Keckley's book was published, as it would serve as a warning "to those ladies whose husbands may be elevated to the position of the President of the United States not to put on airs and attempt to appear what their education, their habits of life and social position, and even personal appearance would not warrant." By writing about Lincoln, Keckley transgressed the law of tact. Her relationship with Lincoln was ambiguous, as it drew both from her work as an employee and from the friendship they developed, which did not meet the rules of gentility. People felt as if Keckley, an African American and former slave, had transgressed the boundaries that the middle class tried to maintain between public and private life.
Joanne Fleischner writes of the reaction to Keckley's book,
"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 publicity, Keckley wrote letters to newspaper editors and defended her serious intentions, which was part of the model of gentility. The uproar over the book subsided, but it did not sell well. The writer Joanne Fleischner has suggested that Mrs. Lincoln's son Robert, who was perpetually embarrassed by his mother's behavior in private life (and would have her committed to an asylum in 1875), did not want the public to know such intimate details as appeared in the memoir. He may have been involved in suppressing the sale and distribution of the memoir.
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, as he promised not to disclose them and had not gained her consent for publication. 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 continued to attempt to earn money by sewing and teaching young women her techniques, while much of her white clientele stopped calling. Eventually she was in great need of money. In 1890 at age seventy-two, she made a drastic decision: to sell the Lincoln articles which she kept for thirty-five years. She sold twenty-six articles for $250, but it remains to be known how much she received from the transactions.
In the years following, she moved frequently, 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 organized a dress exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair. By the late 1890s, she returned to Washington, where she lived 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), presumably for health reasons.
Later years and death
Toward the end of her life, Keckley suffered from headaches and crying spells, very much as had her estranged friend Mary Lincoln. She had the First Lady's photograph hung on the wall of her room. Keckley led a quiet and secluded life. She told friends that Mrs. Lincoln had contacted her and they became reconciled some time after her book's publication.
In May 1907, Mrs. Keckley died as a resident of the National Home, located on Euclid St. NW. in Washington, DC. A historic plaque installed across the street from the site of the former home commemorates her life.
Jennifer Fleischer wrote:
"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."
Legacy and honors
The dress that Keckley designed for Lincoln to wear at her husband's second inauguration ceremony and reception is held by the Smithsonian's American History Museum.
Keckley designed a quilt made from scraps of materials left over from dresses made for Mrs. Lincoln. It is held by the Kent State University Museum and is pictured in the book, The Threads of Time, The Fabric of History (2007), by Rosemary E. Reed Miller, which features Keckley among numerous African-American designers.
The former school in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where Rev. Robert Burwell worked (and Keckley for him), has been designated as the Burwell School Historic Site. It addresses Keckley's life and times on its website.
Her autobiography prompted controversy and questions about the truth of her portrayals. In 1935, the journalist David Rankin Barbee wrote that Elizabeth Keckley had not written her autobiography, and never existed as a person. He said that the abolitionist writer Jane Swisshelm wrote the slave narrative to advance her abolitionist cause. Many people who read the article challenged his claim, citing personal and/or secondary acquaintance with Keckley. Barbee modified his statement, saying that "no such person as Elizabeth Keckley wrote the celebrated Lincoln book." She was been well-documented since then.