This week we would like to pay homage to Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), the former American slave who became a dressmaker and went on to become the favoured seamstress of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Elizabeth Keckley was born in Virginia, where her mother Agnes worked as a slave in the house of a family named Burwell. It took her mother’s impending death for Elizabeth to find out that her biological father was the master of the household, Armistead Burwell, despite her obvious mixed-race physical appearance. Keckley suffered through a life under slavery for different families in different states, and bore a son named George by her sexual abuser. But, in 1852, she was able to escape her tragic life as a slave, and bought the freedom of herself and her son. Her son enrolled in the first college to be owned and run by African Americans, Wilberforce University. They both moved to Baltimore in the early 1860s.
Trying to establish herself as a seamstress as a free black woman was extremely difficult, and nearly impossible for Keckley, as the state of Maryland was passing many laws that prevented its free black citizens from working. Keckley believed that moving to Washington DC was the best place for her to build a career as a dressmaker, so she worked tirelessly to persuade her patrons to help her pay for a license that was required in order to work in Washington.
Keckley was successful and she steadily built up a reputation as a talented seamtress among high-society women, especially after being commissioned for a dress by the wife of prominent military officer Robert E Lee. It was this growing fame that sparked an introduction to the White House and, in 1861, Keckley met Mary Todd Lincoln on the day of the president’s first inauguration. Keckley was soon employed as Mary Lincoln’s personal dresser and modiste, and a close friendship grew between the two women.
Elizabeth Keckley used her newly-found status to influence racial activism. She went on to set up the Contraband Relief Association, later changed to the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldier’s Relief Association, which provided clothing, food and shelter to wounded soliders and recently emancipated slaves in need of support.
She also penned her honest autobiography, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Since her husband’s assassination, Mary Lincoln’s reputation had been ruined by her frivolous spending, and Keckley hoped that her book would help to expose the true nature of her friend. But Mrs Lincoln saw the writing as a betrayal and the pair fell out of touch.
Elizabeth Keckley’s legacy as a seamstress lives on through artifacts. The dress that she designed for Mrs Lincoln to wear at her husband’s second inauguration can be seen in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, and a quilt she sewed out of Mary’s dress scraps is displayed in the Kent State University Museum. In 2013 playwright, Tazewell Thompson, put on a play based on the unlikely friendship between Lincoln and Keckley called Mary T. & Lizzy K.