Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley

(1818-1907)

DJ Name: Lizzy Smalls

‘Twas a Tuesday night at the White House in 1861, and Mary Todd Lincoln was all aflutter. She simply would not have enough time to don her corset and flowered headpiece before she had to descend the stairs to the evening’s festivities. The White House’s seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, was late to the job and Mary Todd refused to allow such tardiness under her watch. She would not wear the dress Elizabeth had made for her, no way. But her stubbornness crumbled with some prodding from her sister, and Mary Todd agreed to get into the dress. She couldn’t help but admire the flowy off-the-shoulder lace neckline and floral arrangement patterns sewed into her voluminous skirts. She was ready for her close-up, and just then her Instagram husband, Abe, walked into the room with their two sons. “I declare, you look charming in that dress,” he told Mary Todd. “Mrs. Keckley has met with great success.” Now it was her heart that was all aflutter, and she at last felt comfortable to make her grand entrance into the party. As the saying goes, “a First Lady is never late, everyone else is just simply early” or something like that. 

But this Historic Shuffle isn’t about Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s about Elizabeth Keckley, the slave-turned-White-House-seamstress who developed close ties with the Lincoln family and worked tirelessly as an activist to give food and shelter to destitutely poor, recently freed slaves. While she stitched floral patterns into the bodices of Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses, she often shuffled up this playlist to help bring rhythm to her sewing:

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born enslaved in Dinwiddie, Virginia, in February of 1818. Her mother, Agnes, was a slave on Colonel Armistead Burwell’s plantation, and it’s likely Lizzy was the product of Burwell raping Agnes. Burwell and his wife, Mary, had at least 10 children of their own, and despite Lizzy’s mixed parentage, she grew up enslaved on the plantation. Agnes was married to George Pleasant Hobbs, a slave on a nearby plantation, and he helped raise Elizabeth as if she were his biological daughter. Agnes even ensured Lizzy always carried a bit of George with her by giving her his last name as well as her own. 

Lizzy grew up on the plantation with other enslaved children, and she often helped her mother with domestic tasks. The Burwell fam quite liked Agnes, which served them both well. Agnes took care of the family’s children and sewed clothes for them, and in return they allowed Agnes to learn how to read and write. Agnes passed these skills on to her daughter, whose first task as a five-year-old slave was to tend to the Burwells’ infant daughter. Lizzy called the infant her “earliest and fondest pet,” but the job was not without its hardships. Once, while she was rocking the baby, she accidentally launched her li’l pet out of its cradle and onto the floor. For that mistake, she was taken outside and lashed repeatedly. Again, she was less than five years older than the infant she was supposed to watch over. It was the first time that she was beaten in this way, she recalled, but it wouldn’t be her last.

When Lizzy was around seven years old, her father figure, George Hobbs, was invited by Colonel Burwell to come live with the Keckley fam on the Burwell plantation as a “reward” for Agnes’ stellar seamstress skills. This excited Agnes and Lizzy, but that joy was short-lived as George was forced to move West with his owner. He had two hours to say goodbye. In her autobiography, Lizzy noted, “I can remember the scene as if it were but yesterday; — how my father cried out against the cruel separation…the last kiss, the last good-by; and he, my father, was gone, gone forever.” Sadly, this was not an uncommon occurrence for enslaved families to be ripped apart. Oftentimes members were sold to other plantation owners. Agnes and Lizzy never saw George again, but they became pen pals with each other, which, in their case, was unique because not many enslaved people could read or write. 

As she grew up, Lizzy constantly noticed and experienced the cruelties of slavery. Her observations would later be detailed in her autobiography, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. She lived out her youth on the Burwell plantation, and when she turned 14 she was sent to live with the eldest Burwell son (otherwise known as her half-brother), Robert, and his wife, Margaret Anna Robertson. Robert was a Presbyterian minister. Awkward to preach the “good word” when those words don’t quite align with his actions, huh? Elizabeth was whipped, raped and especially tortured by Margaret probs because she recognized that Lizzy was actually a member of the Burwell family given the fact that Papa Burwell was her papa, too. Margaret went so far as to call on their neighbor to flog Lizzy regularly and she would return to work with bleeding welts in her back. Lizzy was also raped by the local store owner, Alexander Kirkland, and from one of the non-consensual attacks came her only son whom she named George. Lizzy’s wretched time in North Carolina finally reached an end in 1842 when she was sent back to the Burwell plantation in Virginia. 

Upon her arrival in the Old Dominion, Elizabeth learned that Colonel Burwell was buried six feet under. Otherwise known as he passed away, bit the dust, yadda yadda. So Lizzy was sent to live with Burwell’s daughter, Ann, and her husband, Hugh Garland. It was here that she reunited with her mother, and the two worked for the Garland family. The Garlands were not fruitful with their financial situation, and Hugh had to place all of his property, including Lizzy and Agnes, as collateral against his debts. Hugh hitched the family a carriage ride to St. Louis, Missouri, in his search for a new business opportunity, yet a year later his finances still hadn’t improved. He planned to hire out Agnes’ work, but Lizzy vetoed this because her mother was too old so Lizzy quickly put her seamstress skills to work by taking commissions from the ladies of St. Louis and made them customized dresses. As time went on, Elizabeth made the Garland family money, as well as a name for herself. 

Lizzy met her future husband, James, during her time in St. Louis. He was a free Black man, but Lizzy refused his hand at first because she was playing hard to get. JK. She did not want to marry him until she and her son were also free. If she were to marry and have children with James, those children would then be born enslaved. Lizzy approached Hugh Garland and asked what it would take for her to be free. He handed her a silver dollar that she could use to purchase her and her son a ferry ticket out of Missouri and into a free state. What he didn’t give her were her manumission papers, AKA the official paperwork she would need to validate her freedom if ever questioned because even if she had taken the silver dollar and left she wouldn’t have proof that she was free and would most likely be sent back to Hugh Garland if caught. At that time, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 authorized local governments to return escaped enslaved people to their owners and denied captured individuals a trial by jury. The Act compelled a lot of citizens to assist in the capture of supposed runaway slaves, and it also faced fierce resistance from abolitionists who assisted enslaved people as well as those who were free during their escape or return to society. 

Four score and two years later, which is really a dramatic way of saying two years later, Lizzy finally reached an agreement with Hugh Garland and he agreed to release her from his ownership for $1,200. With freedom in sight, she agreed to marry James Keckley and they stayed in St. Louis where she was still in charge of household tasks for the Garlands until she could pay the price of her freedom. Unfortunately, wifed up Lizzy learned that her new hubby James may not have actually been a free man and was likely a runaway slave. This made her uncomfy. It took many years for her to find $1,200, but her loyal patron, Elizabeth Le Bourgeois (a fellow Lizzy), came through and helped her raise the money.  Lizzy and her son were officially emancipated on November 15, 1855. Her manumission papers read, “Know all men that I, Anne. P. Garland, of the County and City of St. Louis, State of Missouri, for and in consideration of the sum of $1,200, to me in hand paid this day in cash, hereby emancipate my negro woman Lizzie, and her song George…” Upon receipt of her official freedom, she separated from James, but stayed in St. Louis and worked as a seamstress for several years. It was during this time that her mother passed away. Lizzy stayed in St. Louis until she paid back her debts, then left the Heartland for Washington, D.C., where there was a vibrant community of Black seamstresses.

Of course, the capital city in 1860 didn’t just allow Lizzy to set up shop right away. Why would a city that represents freedom and democracy, but was built by enslaved people welcome a Black woman who was a former slave to open her business? Who’s to say! There were many laws in place that Lizzy had to follow before she could get her sew on. She needed to obtain a work permit and also had to have a white person vouch for her freedom because, apparently, her official manumission papers weren’t enough. Because of her years of successful work as a seamstress in St. Louis, Lizzy had a vast network of clients she could reach out to in her former home (not so much in her new home…yet). One of her wealthy clients convinced the mayor to waive the fee Lizzy would have had to pay to live there as a free Black woman. While another one of her clients connected her with the D.C. social scene and among the first socialites that Lizzy spoke with and created dresses for were Varina Davis AKA wife of future Confederate President, Jefferson Davis and Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee. Varina went so far as to ask Lizzy to move South with them because, according to her, the nation was on the verge of war. Lizzy stayed North. Woof. 

That same year, tall boi Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the US of A. He arrived in the District, and in the weeks leading up to his inauguration (at which, once again, Lena Horne was not present), the leading ladies of the city were on the prowl for ~fancy~ attire to wear to the events. One of Lizzy’s patrons, Margaret McClean, asked Lizzy to make her a dress that she could wear while attending dinner with the Lincolns. She only gave Lizzy one week’s notice so initially Lizzy said no because it wasn’t enough time. However, Margaret insisted that she make the dress because it would get Lizzy the spotlight she needed to have her skills on display in front of the future first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. Lizzy finished the dress, and Margaret wore it. Lady Lincoln said, “Margaret, that dress is ‘sew’ cute. Where can I get one?” to which Margaret replied, “My favorite dressmaker, Lizzy Keckley, designed it. She’s the ‘reel’ deal.” Mary Todd was already familiar with Lizzy because her work was all the rage with the ladies who lunched in St. Louis and after Abe’s inauguration, Lizzy was hired as Lady Lincoln’s personal seamstress. 

OK, now we’re caught up to that beginning scene where Instagram hubby Abe complimented Lizzy’s sewing skills. Mary Todd was very pleased with the lewks Lizzy created for her, so she continued to pay her the big bucks and Lizzy designed over a dozen dresses for her over the next couple of months. The two became business buddies, and later real buddies. Gal pals. They said, “uteruses before duderuses” and they twirled around in their homemade dresses together. OK, maybe not quite like that but Mary began to divulge secrets to her new bestie and Lizzy became her trusted confidant. Their relationship gave Lizzy an insider’s look at the decisions and strategy within the White House as the Civil War progressed, and the women’s bond deepened as both mourned the loss of a son. Lizzy’s son George joined the Union forces and was killed in his first battle at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. Willie Lincoln passed away in 1862 at 11 years old after a battle with typhoid fever and, according to Lizzy, he was his mother’s favorite child.

Mary grieved and grieved, and Lizzy was often by her side to lend support and perhaps a tissue as well. Losing a young son took a toll on Mary, but President Abe was less sympathetic after a while. Lizzy recalled in her memoir that Abe once took his wife over to a window, pointed at an asylum, and said “Try and control your grief, or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.” And then Nurse Ratched knocked on the door, dragged Mary out and she spent the rest of her days cuddled up with Randle McMurphy, or at least that’s according to Page Six. Just kidding, life continued on in the White House and Lizzy remained entangled in the Lincolns’ lives. 

Aside from continuing to dream up dresses, Lizzy also helped found a relief society in 1862 called the Contraband Relief Association, which aided fugitive Blacks in the North who’d fled their enslaved conditions in the Confederacy. Since Elizabeth was well-connected and had some money, her efforts with the organization were hugely significant. She approached Mary Lincoln for donations to the group, who obliged and Abe wrote out checks for the org while maintaining checks and balances in the Oval Office.

Lizzy’s time with the Lincolns came to an abrupt end when Abe’s life came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated on April 15, 1865, just a week after the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Grieving her husband’s death, Mary requested support and companionship from the woman who had been by her side for her entire stay in the White House: Lizzy. No longer the First Lady, Mary moved to Chicago and asked that Lizzy accompany her. She did, but she soon returned to D.C. to continue her dress-making biz and advocacy efforts. 

But while Lizzy was makin’ money moves in the District, Mary was quickly going broke in Chicago. She asked Lizzy to meet her in New York in 1866 so that she could try to sell some of her wardrobe. Lizzy did her best to try to find buyers, but the trip was less than successful. However, the two ladies remained pen pals as they both returned to their respective homes. Lizzy did her best to support and publicly defend the former First Lady, and she even reached out to prominent Black leaders of churches to try to drum up cash support for Mary. But as time went on, their friendship faltered. Mary was needy and wanted attention and Lizzy needed space, OK? Lizzy also donated some Lincoln relics without Mary’s consent (oops) and Lizzy started to fall behind on responding to her letters. 

Instead, Lizzy put pen to paper to tell her story, hoping that her truth would help set Mary free of public scorn and clarify her own life story, as well. But America wasn’t quite ready for a former slave’s memoir. The book tanked. Lizzy’s memoir violated social norms of privacy, race and class, meaning white Americans didn’t quite have the palette for the atrocities Lizzy faced as a slave. Her memoir included letters between herself and Mary, which was seen as intrusive of Mary’s private life. The truth, in this case, did not set her free. The news media derided the book, and some people asserted that its publication served as justification for why Black women shouldn’t be allowed to learn how to read or write. Lizzy fought back against her haters, but it was clear that America was not yet ready for a look in the mirror.


The book soon faded into the background of the hubbub of life, and Lizzy continued to bust her butt as a seamstress. She and Mary no longer corresponded (Mary was mighty mad about the memoir) and some of Lizzy’s customers had disappeared, too. But Lizzy carried on, and she took her sewing skills to Ohio, where she served as the head of Wilberforce University’s Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts. Late in life, still in Ohio, she possibly suffered a stroke and shortly after returned to D.C. to live out her final days. She passed away in 1907 at the age of 89. Though the world wasn’t ripe for a former slave’s memoir during Lizzy’s life, the world should be ripe for her story now. The U.S.’s unpalatable past must be faced, and reading Lizzy’s memoir is a good place to start.

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