Elizabeth Keckley (ca. 1818-1907), Slave Turned Entrepreneur, Confidante to Mary Lincoln
- Achieved freedom in 1855
- Became successful dressmaker in Washington, eventually working for Mary Lincoln
- Founded Contraband Relief Association in 1862 to help former slaves
- Published autobiography about her life
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born into slavery in North Carolina. Her mother was a seamstress, and Elizabeth was originally told that her father was George Hobbs, a slave who lived on a plantation one hundred miles away. For the first eight years of Elizabeth’s life, Hobbs visited his wife and child at Christmas and Easter. Then Hobbs’ owner moved away, and George was never seen again by his family.
As Elizabeth’s mother was dying, she revealed to Elizabeth that though her husband was George Hobbs, Elizabeth’s true father was the owner of the plantation where they lived.
Keckley was only age 4 or 5 when she took on nursemaid duties for the plantation family. There were four white children under the age of ten, so it was decided that Elizabeth would look after the most recently born infant daughter.
When she was in her teens, Keckley was sent to another household to work for the son of the plantation owner, and she became a target of abuse by the village schoolmaster who would summon her for beatings. Later she was sold and sent to St. Louis where she was raped. She gave birth to her only son, George, named after her own presumed father.
Looking for a Way Out of Slavery
Keckley approached her owner, a Mr. Garland, and asked that the give her a dollar amount for which she could buy freedom for herself and her son. At first Garland refused to give an amount and then after several requests he stipulated $1200. Keckley’s income as a seamstress primarily went to support the Garland family who had hit upon rough times, so she found it impossible to save money. She made plans to go North to look for financial help for buying her freedom, but before she left, one of her customers came forward and put up about $400 of her own money and got friends to put up the rest. Keckley and her son were free.
Keckley wanted her son to have an education, so when he was old enough she enrolled him in Wilberforce University (founded in 1856 in Ohio near one of the stops of the Underground Railroad.)
When the war started, George Jr. wanted to fight for the Union. Because his father was white, he looked white enough to enroll in the Union Army. (African-Americans could not enlist until 1863.) Sadly for Elizabeth, her son was killed in August of 1861 at the battle of Wilson’s Creek in Missouri.
Keckley continued to run her St. Louis-based business, and then decided to move on. First she tried to settle in Maryland but laws were tightening on former slaves, so she moved to Washington D.C. in 1860 where she acquired an excellent reputation among the society women, including Varnia Davis (wife of Jefferson Davis) and Mary Anne Randolph Custis Lee (wife of Robert E. Lee). She was recommended to Mary Todd Lincoln and was soon the First Lady’s favorite seamstress. (One of Keckley’s dresses is in the Smithsonian as Mary wore it for the second inauguration, and any photos of Mary Lincoln by Matthew Brady were very likely taken in Keckley dresses.)
Elizabeth Keckley became one of the few people who could calm Mary when she was upset, so Keckley not only made Mary’s dresses but she was at the White House each morning to help Mary get dressed. As a result, she had an unusual view of the White House and its inhabitants.
In Washington in 1862, Keckley came up with the idea of forming the Contraband (former slave) Relief Association. She noted that white people in DC were raising funds for relief of the soldiers, and so Keckley suggested that the “colored people” form a group to raise money for their own unfortunate. The group raised money and gathered food and clothing; they sponsored Christmas dinners for the sick and wounded from the war; and they helped find teachers for the schools for the newly freed. In 1864 the organization changed its name to the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldiers’ Relief Association. While the organization eventually disbanded, they set a standard and exposed the very real needs of the displaced black community.
After the assassination, Mary Lincoln eventually decided to move to Chicago. Keckley escorted her, but Keckley returned to her DC business after Mary was settled. The two women remained close and corresponded, so when Lincoln ran into financial difficulty and wanted to sell some of her clothing, Keckley went with her to New York to find a market. Unfortunately the story came to light and became known as the “old clothes” scandal. Lincoln was pounced on by the press for daring to sell her clothes to raise money.
Keckley published her ghostwritten autobiography, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House in 1868. Keckley apparently thought her book would help restore her former employer’s reputation, but in that day, the idea that a “colored” had stepped out to tell “behind the scenes” stories was viewed poorly. Mrs. Lincoln felt betrayed by the woman she described as “my best living friend,” and Elizabeth Keckley’s reputation was ruined. Mary Lincoln’s friends took their business elsewhere.
A representative of the alma mater of Keckley’s son came forward to help. In 1892 she was offered a faculty position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts. Within a year, she was organizing a dress exhibit for the Chicago World’s Fair.
Her last years did not sustain this positive momentum. She ended life in Washington in 1907; she was living at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children when she died.