Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley
American slave, seamstress, and author Elizabeth Keckley (c.1818-1907) had a close friendship with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln during her time in the White House. Keckley's autobiography Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House caused considerable controversy at the time of its publication, with some accusing Keckley of betraying the confidence of Mrs. Lincoln. However, this book and its unique perspective remain valuable for researchers and historians today.
Born Into Slavery
Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery as Elizabeth Hobbs on the estate of Colonel Armistead Burwell in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. The exact date of her birth is unknown. Sources place it as early as 1818 and as late as 1840; based on records from the Burwell household, February 1818 seems the most likely date, although other evidence from Keckley's lifetime suggests that 1824 or 1825 may be the correct year.
Details of her family are better known. Agnes Hobbs was the Burwells' house slave, caring for the Burwell children and acting as the family's seamstress. Unlike most slaves—and in violation of laws forbidding slaves to be educated—Agnes Hobbs had been taught to read and write. George Pleasant Hobbs, Agnes's “abroad” husband, was a slave who lived on his owner's property in the area. For all that Agnes Hobbs gave her first child the family name of her husband, it seems unlikely that George Hobbs was actually Elizabeth's father. Like many children born into slavery, Elizabeth Keckley was probably the child of Agnes Hobbs's owner, Colonel Burwell. George Hobbs remained devoted to his wife and her daughter, despite being permitted to see them only occasionally. When Keckley was about seven or eight years old, George Hobbs's owner's family moved away, taking Hobbs with them. Keckley never saw the man she believed to be her father again.
Keckley's childhood was difficult. When about four years old, Keckley began looking after the youngest Burwell daughter, Elizabeth. She also performed household chores and began learning to sew from her mother. As a child, she received her first severe beating, and the memory of it never left her. Writing in her memoirs, Behind the Scenes; or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, Keckley remembered, “The blows were not administered with a light hand … doubtless the severity of the lashing has made me remember the incident so well. This was the first time I was punished in this cruel way, but not the last.”
As a teenager, Keckley went to live with the Burwells' oldest son, Robert, and his new wife. The family moved to North Carolina, where Keckley suffered beatings by a local schoolmaster and learned to handle her temperamental mistress. She was also sexually abused by a man named Alexander Kirkland, who fathered her only child, George. In the early 1840s, Keckley and her baby son returned to Virginia to live with the Burwell family, now a resident at a farm belonging to Hugh A. Garland, who had married Anne Burwell. She remained with the Garland family for over twenty years, becoming close to the Garland children. Jennifer Fleischner noted in Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave that “if Lizzy ever experienced something like happiness as a slave, it was with the Garlands.”
In 1847, the Garlands moved their household to St. Louis. Here, Keckley saw a number of free African Americans and began to long for freedom, believing it now to be a possibility. She began working independently as a seamstress to help support the Garland family's often inadequate income. In 1850, she became reacquainted with James Keckley, whom she previously met in Virginia. He told her he was a free man and proposed marriage, but she refused, not wanting to bring any children into the world as slaves, as any of her children would have automatically been. However, this proposal made her determined to acquire her own freedom. Deciding against escaping, she instead began badgering Garland with questions about, as she said in her memoirs, “whether he would permit me to purchase myself, and what price I must pay.” On one occasion, Garland offered her a small amount of amount so she could cross the river with her son and thereby gain her freedom, but she refused, preferring to legally purchase her freedom. Garland finally set the price for the freedom of Keckley and her son at $1200. Keckley then agreed to marry James Keckley, but soon discovered that he was a slave like herself as well as an alcoholic.
Keckley continued to work as a seamstress, hoping to earn enough money to buy her freedom. By the time Garland died, Keckley had not raised the sum; however, the women for whom she sewed banded together to lend her the money and Keckley and her son became free in August 1855. She soon saved enough money from her earnings to repay the loan. In 1860, Keckley left St. Louis for Baltimore, Maryland. She stayed there only briefly before continuing to Washington, D.C. There, she began her own sewing business, working for a time with Varina Howell Davis, wife of the future President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. (Keckley recounted in her memoirs that after the Civil War, she observed a wax figure depicting Davis in the dress he was reported to have been wearing when captured and recognized it as one she had made for his wife.) Keckley hired other young women to work for her, building her sewing business and expanding her clientele. Keckley's biography in Notable Black American Women commented that her “business success was derived not only from her sewing and teaching skills, but also from her bearing and personality.”
Developed Friendship with Mrs. Lincoln
Upon her arrival in Washington, D.C., Keckley dreamed of working for the women of the White House. This hope was realized shortly after the arrival of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln, in the capital in 1862. One of Keckley's clients knew Mrs. Lincoln and recommended Keckley's services to her. Over the next several months, Keckley made several dresses for the new First Lady. Soon, Keckley became a confidante of Mrs. Lincoln, acting not only as dressmaker but as personal maid, nurse, traveling companion, and general sounding board. When the Lincolns' son Willie became ill, Keckley sat with him and later helped dress him after his death. Keckley had lost her own son George, who had enlisted in the Union army and died in a battle in August 1861. Mrs. Lincoln had written Keckley when she heard of the death; Keckley said in her memoirs that “the kind womanly letter that Mrs. Lincoln wrote to me … was full of golden words of comfort.” The two women supported each other through their losses, building a basis for their friendship. Fleischner noted that “after Willie died, Lizzy was one of the few people Mary admitted to her presence.”
Keckley soon became an integral part of Mary Todd Lincoln's retinue. Mrs. Lincoln, somewhat like Keckley's former North Carolina mistress Mrs. Burwell, was a temperamental woman given to outbursts of emotion and fits of depression, and Keckley was someone on whom she could rely. In turn, Mrs. Lincoln supported Keckley in her endeavors; when Keckley helped a relief organization for recently-freed slaves in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Lincoln provided both moral and financial support for the venture. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Keckley came to the assistance of his bereaved wife. During Mary Lincoln's period of mourning, Keckley was again one of the few people whom she wished to see. Keckley later helped Lincoln gather her belongings and return to Illinois; Lincoln wanted to employ Keckley, but could not afford to, so Keckley returned to her business in Washington, D.C. However, the two women corresponded and met again in 1867 when Lincoln tried to sell some of her personal effects in the hopes of raising money to cover debts. However, this action brought considerable criticism upon both women.
Published Controversial Memoirs
In 1868, Keckley's memoirs, Behind the Scenes, were published by G.W. Carlton and Company. Keckley wrote the book hoping to defend both herself and Mary Lincoln from the recent criticism. She also hoped to raise money to support Lincoln. The book contained Keckley's account of the personal lives of the Lincolns, and displayed both Mary Lincoln's strengths and failings. Keckley provided much private detail about private events and opinions; in doing so, she revealed many things that the Lincolns would have preferred to keep out of the public eye. In Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War, Elizabeth Young argued that the book was an effort to “[leave] Mary Todd Lincoln symbolically naked and the seamstress herself holding needle.” Whatever the intent, the effect of the book was to end all future contact between Keckley and the Lincoln family. Robert Lincoln publicly condemned the work and may have even tried to stop its publication; Mary Lincoln, feeling betrayed by her friend, no longer even corresponded with Keckley.
Keckley's life continued to be quiet for the next several years. She remained in Washington, D.C., and continued with her sewing business, training many young seamstresses. Despite being in her 70s, Keckley moved to Wilberforce, Ohio, in 1892 to teach sewing and head the domestic arts program at the historically African-American Wilberforce University. The following year, she represented the university at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
In 1898, Keckley returned to Washington, D.C., where she lived in the Home for Destitute Women and Children. During her years at the shelter, she spent much of her time in her room, apparently mourning the circumstances that had estranged her from Mary Todd Lincoln. Her only income during this time was the $8 (later $12) a month she received as a pension from her deceased son, George. She remained at the home until her death from a stroke on May 26, 1907, following a brief illness. Keckley was buried in Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C. On her tombstone, the words “For so he giveth his beloved sleep” from Psalm 127 were engraved. This tombstone marked Keckley's grave until 1959, when Harmony Cemetery was relocated from Washington, D.C. to Landover, Maryland; because Keckley had no relatives to claim her remains, she was reburied in an unmarked grave.
After her death, Keckley's very existence was called into question. In 1935, journalist David Rankin Barbee argued that not only was Keckley not the author of Behind the Scenes, but that no such person as Elizabeth Keckley had ever lived; he claimed that the true author of the autobiography was a woman named Jane Swisshelm. However, people who had known Keckley personally came forward to dispute his claims, and Barbee was ultimately forced to recast his accusations to say, according to Fleischner, that “no such person Elizabeth Keckley wrote the celebrated Lincoln book.”
Despite the controversy regarding Behind the Scenes, this account of White House life remains valuable to scholars today. Although many have challenged Keckley and her account over the years, her place in history seems assured.
Fleischner, Jennifer, Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women's Slave Narratives, New York University Press, 1996.
Fleischner, Jennifer, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave, Broadway Books, 2003.
Keckley, Elizabeth, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House Cartleton & Co., 1868.
Notable Black American Women, Book 1. Gale Research, 1992.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRc, (November 26, 2007).