Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (February 1818–May 26, 1907)
Seamstress and Author
Born a slave in Dinwiddie County, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (February 1818–May 26, 1907), did not discover until later in life that her biological father was her mother’s white owner. She experienced slavery’s hardships early when her mother’s enslaved husband was separated from the family, and she suffered physical abuse at the hands of her owners. After moving to St. Louis with her owner’s daughter, she married James Keckly and began to earn money as a seamstress. By 1855 her many patrons had raised enough money to purchase the freedom of Keckly and her son. They relocated to Washington, D.C., where she developed a clientele that included many prominent women.
Keckly came to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln and in 1861 became not only her personal dressmaker, but also a confidante. During the Civil War, Keckly helped establish the Contraband Relief Association to provide assistance for black refugees. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Keckly resumed her career in Washington. To help raise money for the indebted Mrs. Lincoln, Keckly wrote Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868). The publisher misspelled her name as Keckley, which subsequently became the most commonly used spelling. The Lincoln family was incensed at the revealing personal details it contained, and the book did not sell many copies. Keckly continued sewing, trained young dressmakers, and in the 1890s taught sewing and domestic arts at Wilberforce University, in Ohio. She died at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, in Washington, D.C., which she had helped establish in 1863.
Sheila Coates, President and Founder of Black Women United for Action accepts the 2014 Strong Men and Women in Virginia History on behalf of Elizabeth Keckly.
- Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley
- Mary Lincoln's Dress, National Museum of American History
Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:
- How do you think we could use the clothes Elizabeth Keckly made as primary sources to teach us about her life?
- Can artifacts be primary sources? Why or why not?