Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Dinwiddie, Virginia, in February 1818. After purchasing her freedom in 1855, she became a dressmaker for the wives of the political elite in Washington, D.C. Keckley was a confidante of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, but their friendship ended after the publication of the dressmaker's memoir in 1868. She died impoverished in May 1907 in Washington, D.C.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born into slavery in February 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. Her parents were listed as George Pleasant and Agnes Hobbs, but Pleasant, who belonged to another family, paid infrequent visits; Keckley later reported her mother's deathbed confession that her master, Colonel Armistead Burwell, was her real father.
"Lizzie" was passed to the ownership of Colonel Barnwell's son, Robert. She was impregnated against her will by a white man, and after giving birth in 1839 to her son, George, she moved with Robert Barnwell's sister to St. Louis. There, she married James Keckley, but the union was short lived. By then, she had learned the dressmaking trade and exhibited considerable flair in her creations. Loans from her wealthy dressmaking clientele enabled Keckley to purchase her freedom for $1,200 in November 1855.
In addition to her sewing skills, Keckley was an excellent networker. By 1860, she had moved to Washington, D.C., and established her own dressmaking business. She was soon styling the Washington elite, including the wives of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stephen Douglas, Lincoln's former political rival. She had a spare style in contrast to the Victorian norm and was an expert with fit. She also scored the coup client, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who was an enthusiastic clotheshorse.
Keckley not only became Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, she was also the first lady's personal dresser and closest companion. She was a White House habitué during the pivotal years of the Abraham Lincoln presidency; the two ladies travelled together, with Keckley present for the Gettysburg address, and they raised money together for the Civil War effort.
Keckley son's died in the war in August 1861, but her mourning was cut short to comfort Mrs. Lincoln, who lost her own son to typhoid the following February. Keckley was also there to provide support following the president's assassination and Mrs. Lincoln's transition out of the White House.
Keckley decided to write her memoir in part to salvage the former first lady's reputation after the war. However, the publication of Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years as a Slave and Four Years in the White House in 1868 had the opposite effect; feeling betrayed by the revelations in the book, Mrs. Lincoln cut off contact with the woman she once called her closest friend.
Death and Legacy
The once-celebrated dressmaker eventually lost most of her prominent clients and ran out of money. She accepted a faculty position at Ohio's Wilberforce University in the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts in 1892, but ill health prevented her from continuing. She died impoverished in May 1907 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C.
Keckley had an aristocratic bearing and was considered beautiful in her day. Her story has been revived and explored in plays and books such as Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, written by Jennifer Chiaverini and published in 2013.
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