Keckley, Elizabeth (c. 1824–1907)

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Keckley, Elizabeth (c. 1824–1907)

African-American writer, dressmaker, and White House modiste. Born Elizabeth Hobbs in Dinwiddie, Virginia, around 1824; died in Washington, D.C., on May 26, 1907; daughter of slaves, Agnes and George Pleasant; married George Keckley (separated); children: one son, George, who died in battle as a young man.

Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery around 1824 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. Her mother Agnes belonged to the Burwell family; her father George Pleasant was owned by a man named Hobbs. The family was separated permanently when Hobbs moved west, taking Keckley's father with him. Like many slaves, Keckley suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her owners. At age 14, she was raped and had a child whom she named George. Soon after her son's birth, Keckley was given to the Burwells' married daughter Anne Burwell Garland . Anne took Elizabeth and George to St. Louis, Missouri, where Elizabeth worked as a seamstress to help support the Garlands and their five children.

While there, Elizabeth married James Keckley, a man she had first met back in Virginia. The union began happily enough, but began to disintegrate when Keckley learned that James was a slave, not a free man as he had claimed. "With the simple explanation that I lived with him eight years, let charity draw around him the mantle of silence" was all she ever said about her marriage.

After leaving her husband, Keckley set her sights on purchasing freedom for herself and her son, which she was eventually able to do in 1855, with the help of some patrons. She lived in Baltimore for six months before settling in Washington, D.C., where she began a modest dress-making business. Having attracted a prominent clientele, including Mrs. Jefferson Davis (Varina Howell Davis ), and Mrs. Stephen A. Douglas (Adele Cutts Douglas ), Keckley set her sights on sewing for the women of the White House and, with this goal in mind, worked even harder to expand her business. By 1861, she was well established, operating out of rented rooms on 12th Street and employing 20 young women as seamstresses.

Keckley was recommended to Mary Todd Lincoln by a friend of the first lady and was chosen over four other applicants. Through her skill as a seamstress and her trustworthiness, Keckley developed a close relationship with the first lady and in due course became her personal maid, traveling companion, and confidante. Keckley's services often extended to President Abraham Lincoln, who credited her with taming his unruly hair. She also nursed the Lincolns' young son Willie during his final illness, helped prepare him for burial, and tended to Mary Lincoln through her inconsolable grief. After Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Keckley cared once again for the grieving widow and helped her pack up her belongings in preparation to leave the official residence. After attending Mary Lincoln for some time in Chicago, Keckley returned to Washington and re-established her dressmaking business.

In March 1867, against her better judgment, Keckley joined Lincoln in a project to market some of Mary's elaborate wardrobe. At the time, Mary Lincoln harbored the irrational belief that she was destitute and had to do something to raise money. The venture was a disaster. It not only lost money but invited unfavorable publicity; newspapers labeled it the "Old Clothes Speculation." Thinking she could help present Mary Lincoln in a better light, Keckley then enlisted a ghost writer and prepared a book, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Sadly, this project only served to tarnish the former first lady's reputation further and also brought Keckley under attack for its revelations. Apparently, Keckley gave her collaborator a number of Mary Lincoln's letters with instructions to exclude all personal material and to quote from them with discretion. The personal documents were printed in full, however, revealing Mary Lincoln's emotional instability and humiliating the family. Although the book was not widely read, it destroyed the bond between the two women. Keckley, who attempted to apologize on several occasions, was turned away and only heard from Mary Lincoln "in a roundabout way."

Keckley's sewing business gradually declined, and she abandoned it in 1892. For a brief period (1892–93), she taught domestic art at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, after which she returned to Washington. She lived for some time on a small pension she received as the mother of a Union soldier—her son George had been killed on August 10, 1861, at Wilson's Creek, Missouri—but spent her final years in the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, where she died of a paralytic stroke on May 26, 1907. To the end, Keckley would not speak of her controversial book, referring to it only as a "sad memory."

Over the years, the authorship of Keckley's book has been called into question. In a November 11, 1935, article in the Washington Star, David Barbee attributed Behind the Scenes to Jane Swisshelm and went so far as to question the existence of Elizabeth Keckley. John Washington countered in his book They Knew Lincoln (1942) that Keckley had collaborated with James Redpath. In yet another publication, Mary Lincoln, Biography of Marriage (1953), Ruth Randall states that the Keckley book is certainly of value to the scholar, but should be checked carefully for inaccuracies.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Wefer, Marion. "Another assassination, another widow, another embattled book," in American Heritage. Vol. XVIII, no. 5. August 1967.


Papers relating to Elizabeth Keckley are housed at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts