Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly
~ from slave to dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln ~
upon the earth free in God-like thought, but fettered in action." 1
Thus wrote Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly years later about her birth in 1818 on a plantation in Virginia. Her mother was the plantation household seamstress along with a great burden of other duties. She still found time to teach her daughter to sew, a skill that would someday become Elizabeth's road to freedom.
By the age of four Elizabeth was put to work as the nursemaid for the owner's baby daughter. Elizabeth was proud of her new responsibility and a bit overenthusiastic in rocking the cradle. To her alarm the cradle tipped over and the dear baby tumbled out. Not knowing what to do she attempted to get the baby back into the cradle with the fireplace shovel. She was punished for this child like response with a beating. Yet she was expected to continue caring for the baby. Over the years she continued to work as nursemaid and learned to be a skilled seamstress as well. Although the children she cared for could be a trial at times she couldn't help but become fond of them.
Elizabeth describes her mother as kind and loving woman. Her father lived on a nearby plantation but for a short period he was allowed to live with his family. Her father adored his "Little Lizzie". It was a happy time but ended all to soon when her father's master moved westward and took Elizabeth's father with him. Neither she nor her mother ever saw him again.
When she was about 14 years old Elizabeth was loaned to her master's son, a minister who was unable to afford a slave of his own. She did the work of three servants for his family but was treated with scorn and suffered several beatings for her 'stubborn pride'. The last was so severe she was bedridden for 5 days.
During her years with this family she suffered in other ways as well including unwanted attentions of a white man. Eventually she gave birth to a son whom she loved dearly in spite the painful circumstances of his beginnings. Around this time she was returned home to Virginia. It was good to be with her mother again.
Unfortunately, or perhaps I should say fortunately, the family Elizabeth belonged to fell on hard times and it was decided that Elizabeth would be hired out as a seamstress to support the household. Although this meant long hard hours of work it also gave her a chance to refine the skills that would eventually deliver her from slavery.
Along with her exhausting work as a seamstress Elizabeth was involved in a disappointing marriage to Mr. Keckley. When it ended after just eight years Elizabeth was all the more eager to buy freedom for herself and her son.
She had built up a fine clientele of women who sought after her as a dressmaker. She could no longer be called a simple seamstress but instead a "modiste", meaning one whom both designs and crafts individual women's garments. Because of her popularity among her patrons they volunteered to help her with a loan to buy her freedom; a loan that Elizabeth was able to quickly pay back as her wages were now her own.
In time Elizabeth's business as a modiste brought her to Washington DC where she gradually built her reputation as an outstanding designer and creator of fine dresses. She had, over the years, taught herself to read and had become a well-educated woman. One famous patron was Mrs. Jefferson Davis who even urged Elizabeth to go south with her when war became inevitable.
Instead Elizabeth decided to remain in Washington DC and dreamed of someday becoming modiste for the White House. She had shared this desire with others and one day a patron arranged for a meeting between Elizabeth and Mrs. Lincoln. An agreement was made that she would design and make dresses for the president's wife.
But her involvement with the Lincoln family soon developed into far more than simply being modiste for Mary Lincoln. She and Mary became friends and somehow Elizabeth was able to see past Mary Lincoln's selfishness, pushiness and the other traits that caused her to be disdained by many. Perhaps her experiences as a slave required to care for others contributed to her patience with Mary. Elizabeth gradually took on other responsibilities in the White house including caring for little Willie Lincoln on his deathbed and as a comforter to Mary Lincoln throughout her time of devastating grief.
Elizabeth's caring spirit was not limited to the Lincoln family. She noticed the hardships that the emancipated slaves who had come to Washington suffered. Many had an idealized vision of what freedom would be like and instead were often homeless and hungry. Elizabeth was deeply concerned about this and started a relief association to help these former slaves get on their feet again. She worked hard on fundraising and urged famous free blacks to help with the cause. Such well-known personages as Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth contributed their speeches and influences to the cause.
While Mrs. Lincoln may not have been quite as terrible as history tells, President Lincoln was not exactly what we idealize today. The following report tells a bit about the real Abraham Lincoln. "When Sojourner Truth met with Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln was not himself with this colored woman, he had no funny story for her, he called her aunty, as he would his washer woman, and when she complimented him as the first Anti-slavery President, he said, 'I am not an Abolitionist; I wouldn't free the slaves if I could save the union in any other way. I am obliged to do it.'" 2
Mary anxiously feared for her husband's life for there had been many threats against him over the years. When her greatest fear came to be and he was assassinated she was inconsolable. Elizabeth was immediately by her side helping with the packing and giving comfort to both Mary and little Tad.
Mary Lincoln gave away much of what reminded her of her deceased husband and the horror of the assassination. Elizabeth received the cloak that Mary was wearing in the theater that dreadful night.
Mary chose to keep her extensive wardrobe thinking she might need it someday. This involved so many boxes people suspected she was carrying away White House items that were not hers to take. The public had never admired her and this just gave them one more reason to turn against her.
Although Mary urged Elizabeth to accompany her when she left the White House for Chicago it turned out to be a short stay. Mrs. Lincoln did not have the funds to keep her dear friend with her. Elizabeth returned and resumed her modiste business in Washington.
Once things had settled down after the war Elizabeth found herself longing to see the now grown children whom, as a slave, she had helped raise. The reunion was a happy one. Although they feared that Elizabeth would never want to see them again, they had indeed missed her. Elizabeth response to this was, "How could I forget you whom I had grown up with from infancy. Northern people used to tell me that you would forget me, but I told them I knew better, and hoped on." 3
Meanwhile Mary Lincoln was deeply depressed with the dire economic position in which she found herself. In desperation she called on Elizabeth to help her quietly sell her extensive wardrobe. What seemed a good idea turned out to be a disaster as it soon became public bringing only shame to Mary and very little money.
Elizabeth decided to write a book, "Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, Four Years in the White House" reportedly in hopes that the proceeds would bring in some money to help her friend Mary Lincoln. Instead influential individuals and the press scorned the book. As a result it did not sell well. Worse yet, Mary Lincoln was furious with some of the less than complimentary things said about her in the book and the friendship between the two women abruptly ended. In truth the book was far kinder to Mrs. Lincoln than the hostile press of the day was. Elizabeth was deeply hurt at losing her friend and to her dying day kept a picture of Mrs. Lincoln hanging in her room.
Elizabeth's son had been killed during the Civil War fighting for the Union and as Elizabeth aged and could no longer support herself a small military pension as the survivor of her only son was all she had to live on. She spent her elderly years in The Home for Destitute Women and Children that she had helped found. She died in 1907.
Years later Ruth Finley, an early quilt historian, acquired a quilt reportedly made by Elizabeth Keckly from Mary Lincoln's dresses. The story goes that Elizabeth gave the quilt to Mrs. Lincoln who used it on her bed in the White House. 4 But friends who knew Elizabeth Keckly in her later years relayed that Elizabeth had made a quilt out of pieces of Mary's dresses but they did not know if the quilt was ever given to Mrs. Lincoln given their strained relationship. 5
We may never know the truth about the quilt but it can be seen at the Kent State Museum where it is shown with one of Mrs. Lincoln's dresses. You can find photographs of this quilt along with Elizabeth's story on this PDF.
(Note: I've seen her name spelled both Keckly and Keckley.)
© 2004 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)
1 p17 "Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, Four Years in the White House", by Elizabeth Keckley
2 p41 "Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts", by Cuesta Benberry
3 p256 Keckley
4 p57, "Ruth Finley and the Colonial Revival Era", by Ricky Clark, Uncoverings 1995
5 p41 "Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First lady and a Former Slave", by Jennifer Fleischner
On the Internet:
"Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, Four Years in the White House", by Elizabeth Keckley