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Keckley, Elizabeth

Keckley, Elizabeth

May 26, 1907

Dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley was born Elizabeth Hobbs, to a slave family in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia. While in her teens she was sold to a North Carolina slaveowner, and in North Carolina she was raped, probably by her owner, and gave birth to a son. At the age of eighteen she was repurchased, along with her son, by the daughter of her original owner and taken to Saint Louis. There she began her career as a dressmaker, supporting her owners and their five children as well as her own son. In Saint Louis she married James Keckleya slave who convinced her to marry him by claiming to be freebut soon separated from him.

In 1855 Keckley's dressmaking customers lent her $1,200 to purchase her freedom. She established a successful dressmaking business, and in 1860 she moved first to Baltimore and then to Washington, D.C., where she established herself as one of the capital's elite dressmakers. One of her customers was the wife of Jefferson Davis.

Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, became one of Keckley's most loyal customers. Keckley soon made all of the First Lady's clothes, and the two struck up a close friendship. From 1861 to 1865 Keckley worked in the White House as Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and personal maid.

During the Civil War Keckley became active in the abolitionist movement, helping found an organization of black women to assist former slaves seeking refuge in Washington, D.C. The Contraband Relief Association received a $200 donation from Mary Todd Lincoln, and Keckley successfully solicited several prominent abolitionists for financial support, including Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass.

After the assassination of President Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln and Keckley remained close friends until 1868, when Keckley's diaries were published as a book, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln considered the book a betrayal and broke off her relationship with Keckley. Even several noted African Americans criticized Keckley for what they believed to be a dishonorable attack on "the Great Emancipator." Nonetheless, the book has long been considered an invaluable resource for scholars of the Lincoln presidency. It reveals much about the personalities of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, their family life, and their opinions about government officials. The memoir also offers an intimate depiction of Keckley's life in slavery, particularly of the sexual violence she endured as a teenager. Although its accuracy has not been questioned, the book's true authorship has been the subject of considerable debate, since its polished prose seems to be at odds with Keckley's lack of formal education.

Keckley's dressmaking business declined as a result of the controversy surrounding the book. In the 1890s she was briefly a teacher of domestic science, but for most of her later years lived in obscurity, supported by a pension paid to her because her son had been killed fighting for the Union army. Keckley died in 1907 in a Washington rest home she had helped found.

See also Abolition; Douglass, Frederick; Slave Narratives


Fleischner, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between the First Lady and a Former Slave. New York: Broadway, 2003.

Hine, Darlene Clark. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1993.

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868). New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Washington, John E. They Knew Lincoln. New York: Dutton, 1942.

thaddeus russell (1996)
Updated bibliography

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