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Posted on March 18, 2021 at 10:34 AM by Melissa Dalton
As part of Women’s History Month, we’d like to share a story of a woman that had a connection to Greene County. Elizabeth Keckly (also frequently spelled Keckley) led a fascinating, yet heartbreaking, life. Although most of her life was lived outside of Ohio, she has a connection to our region. Keckly sent her son, George, to attend Wilberforce University, and she later became the Head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. This week, we will explore Keckly’s journey from slavery to renowned dressmaker, and her devastating fall from grace after the publication of her memoir.
Elizabeth was born into slavery on February 1818 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia (Fig 1). Her mother, Agnes Hobbs, was married to George Hobbs, an enslaved man from a nearby plantation. Elizabeth found out later in life that George was not her biological father, as her mother was impregnated by their owner, Armistead Burwell. However, George raised her as his own and remained loyal to Elizabeth and Agnes throughout his life, even after being separated.
Fig 1. Modern day view of Dinwiddie County, VA (Google Maps)
Agnes was an accomplished seamstress, and taught her daughter the skill. She also was permitted to read and write, and Agnes was sure to teach Elizabeth as well. At the age of fourteen, Elizabeth was sent to North Carolina to work for the Burwell son, Robert, and his wife. Elizabeth was not well-liked by Robert’s wife and she was beaten frequently, and raped by a local white store owner, which resulted in pregnancy and the birth of her only son, George (named for her step-father), in 1839. After the death of Armistead Burwell, Elizabeth was returned to Virginia to Burwell’s daughter and son-in-law, Anne and Hugh Garland, around 1842.
The family experienced financial hardship, and around 1846, moved to St. Louis in the hopes of new opportunities and fortune. Elizabeth offered her skills as a seamstress to help support the Garland family. Her reputation as a dressmaker grew, and she soon began taking dress orders from white women throughout St. Louis. Elizabeth became a highly skilled businesswoman, and her business grew.
In 1850, James Keckly, a man she knew previously, and was supposedly a free black man, asked her to marry him. She refused, not willing to marry while still enslaved. She requested to buy her and her son’s freedom. Garland would not grant the request at first, but eventually told her she could buy their freedom for $1200. Once she knew she could buy her freedom, she agreed to marry Keckly; however, the marriage did not last as she soon learned that Keckly was likely a fugitive slave (Fig 2).
Fig 2. Elizabeth Hobbs, 1861 (courtesy Moorland-Springarn Research Center, Howard University)
It took many years, but Elizabeth was able to raise the funds to buy her and George’s freedom. It was then that she decided to separate from James, but continued working in St. Louis as a seamstress to pay back the loans that helped secure their freedom. In 1860, she moved to Washington, D.C. and made connections with prominent white women, such as Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis. She was then introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln, who knew of Elizabeth’s work from her time in St. Louis. She commissioned her to make her a dress. Mrs. Lincoln was impressed with her work, and continued to use her services (Fig 3). This business relationship blossomed into a friendship, and Elizabeth and Mary became close friends, bonding over the loss of their children (George had enrolled at Wilberforce University, but enlisted in the Union Army and was killed at Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. Willie Lincoln died roughly six months later of typhoid fever.).
Fig 3. Keckly design for Mary Todd Lincoln (courtesy of the National Museum of American History)
After George’s death, Elizabeth became greatly interested in helping the free and enslaved refugees during the war. She helped found the Contraband Relief Association to help the camps provide necessities. The Lincolns even donated to the cause.
Elizabeth and Mary’s friendship was so deep that when Lincoln was assassinated, Elizabeth was called to comfort Mary. After Lincoln’s death, the family fell into hard times and Mary Lincoln tried selling many items, and asked Elizabeth to help her. This endeavor was met with extreme criticism from the public. This event soiled the reputation of Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, which took a toll on their friendship.
In 1868, in an attempt to mend the thoughts of the public, Keckly published a memoir, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (Fig 4). This book exposed the life of a former slave, the conversations she had with elite white women, and the private life of the Lincolns. It was seen as a violation of all the social norms of the time, especially considering she was a black woman. There was severe and immediate backlash to the publication. Keckly lost business and she never spoke to Mary Lincoln again.
Fig 4. Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, inside cover
Keckly continued her dressmaking though. She taught other black women the trade and skills, and in 1892, accepted a position at Wilberforce University to head the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts (Fig 5). While there, she attended the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and represented the University. The same year, she suffered a stroke, and returned to Washington. Elizabeth lived her remaining life in Washington, D.C., and died in 1907 at the age of 89.
Fig 5. Elizabeth Keckly, undated (courtesy of Indiana State Museum & Allen County Public Library)
Until Next Time.
Indiana Sate Museum & Allen County Public Library
Moorland-Springarn Research Center, Howard University
National Museum of American History
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