Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly

(February 1818–May 26, 1907)
Dinwiddie County
Seamstress and Author

Elizabeth Hobbs was born enslaved in Dinwiddie County and as a young woman suffered brutal beatings and sexual abuse that resulted in the birth of her son. Taken to Saint Louis by her owner's daughter, she married James Keckly, an enslaved man who had misrepresented himself as free. She began to earn money as a seamstress and with the help of her patrons she and her son were freed in 1855. They moved to Washington, D.C., where she developed a clientele that included many prominent women.

Elizabeth Keckly came to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln, and in 1861 became her personal dressmaker and 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 dressmaking career in Washington. To help raise money for the indebted Mary 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 book upset the Lincoln family and few copies were sold. Keckly continued sewing, and in the 1890s taught sewing and domestic arts at Wilberforce University, in Ohio. She died in 1907 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, in Washington, D.C.