While living in the White House, Mary Lincoln formed several friendships, including a notable one with a formerly enslaved woman, Elizabeth Keckly. Elizabeth Keckly’s life was an incredible story of perseverance and survival, one which started in the direst of conditions and ultimately involved and influenced some of the most powerful Americans of the day.
In February 1818 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, an enslaved woman Agnes (“Aggy”) gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s father was their enslaver Colonel Armistead Burwell making the “relationship,” one over which Agnes likely had no choice. Since her mother was enslaved, Elizabeth (Lizzy) was born into slavery as well. Not initially aware of the identity of her biological father, Lizzy grew up believing him to be Agnes’ later husband, George Hobbs. Hobbs was an enslaved man who lived nearby and with whom she had a close relationship. Growing up on the Burwell plantation, Elizabeth worked with her mother including taking care of the Burwell children. Agnes also sewed for the family and taught this skill to her daughter along with how to read and write. Living on the Burwell plantation, Elizabeth saw the horrors of slavery including lashings and other punishments. She also experienced heartbreak when George Hobbs’ enslaver took him out west and away from the family. They never saw him again.
Sadly, Elizabeth experienced further heartbreak when the Burwells separated her from her mother at the age of 14. The Burwells sent her to work for their son Reverend Robert Burwell and his wife Margaret. At Robert Burwell’s home, she continued to experience the horrors of slavery. Robert, his wife, and their neighbor beat Elizabeth arbitrarily and then gave her to work for a local store owner, Alexander McKenzie Kirkland. Over the next four years, Kirkland repeatedly assaulted her and in 1839, she gave birth to a son by him that she named George after her assumed father, George Hobbs. After ten years surviving these horrors, Elizabeth and her son George returned to Virginia when Armistead Burwell died. Burwell’s son-in-law, Hugh A. Garland (who married Elizabeth’s white half-sister Ann) inherited them as property following Armistead’s death. The Garlands moved to St. Louis in 1847 and brought the Hobbs family (Agnes, Elizabeth, and young George) with them. Hugh Garland continued his law practice and his most famous case was serving as the defense attorney for John Sanford, the enslaver of Dred Scott, an enslaved man who became famous for seeking his freedom. While living in St. Louis, Elizabeth became an accomplished seamstress with her wages constituting a major income source for the Garlands, who were increasingly unable to support themselves without her.
Over the next several years, Elizabeth became highly successful and began mingling with the free Black population of St. Louis. In 1850, she met James Keckly, a free African American man, and they developed a relationship. She refused to marry him until she and her son were free, and asked Hugh Garland for her freedom. First, Garland refused, but he later agreed to free her at the cost of 1200 dollars for her and her son. With this hope of independence, she then married James Keckly in 1852.
Over the next three years, she began slowly saving and raising the money to securing her freedom. Her efforts were repeatedly thwarted by the Garlands, and in the end, she had to appeal to a prominent, sympathetic St. Louis family (Le Bourgois). They came to her aid, giving her money which served as a loan to purchase her freedom. In this way, she finally achieved freedom for herself and her son in 1855. She remained in St. Louis and continued her work as a seamstress and became a successful dressmaker. By 1860, she had repaid the loans and separated from her husband because of his abuse of alcohol that, she noted, made him “a burden instead of helpmate”. With this new independence, she moved to Washington D.C. to work as a dressmaker and began making dresses for the elite of the nation’s capital including Varina Davis, wife of Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis and Anna Custis Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee. By 1861, she had established a reputation as a prominent dressmaker and caught the eye of the incoming first lady, Mary Lincoln.
On Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861, Mary Lincoln was growing desperate looking for a dress for an upcoming party. An acquaintance of Mary, Margaret Sumner McLean, recommended Elizabeth Keckly to her. Mary interviewed Elizabeth Keckly, became impressed with her work, and entrusted her to make the dress. On the day of the party, Elizabeth returned with the dress to an upset Mary who was concerned that she would be late for the reception. Elizabeth calmed her and convinced her to wear the dress. After putting it on, President Abraham Lincoln entered the room and, declared upon seeing her “You look charming in that dress. Mrs. Keckly has met with great success.”
Mary went on to hire Elizabeth as her personal modiste (dressmaker). Over the next four years, Elizabeth Keckly made many dresses for Mary Lincoln, and the two women also grew close after the deaths of their sons. George Keckly had enlisted in the Union army (as he passed for a white man) and died at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861. Mary helped comfort Elizabeth after his death. Six months later, Willie Lincoln died in the White House, likely from typhoid fever. Elizabeth helped Mary through this difficult time and accompanied her on her trips to New York City.
Besides working at the White House, Elizabeth Keckly also helped many self-emancipated people entering Washington D.C. seeking freedom. To assist them she founded the Contraband Relief Association which helped the many camps of escaped enslaved people scattered throughout the city. Abraham and Mary Lincoln helped her in these efforts by donating money to the relief organization. To fulfil this work, she met many prominent abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Elizabeth would later be responsible for arranging a meeting between Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
On the evening of April 14, 1865, Elizabeth Keckly learned that Abraham Lincoln had been shot and rushed to the White House. The soldiers guarding the White House refused her entry and provided her little information. Mary, a few blocks east in the city, asked for Elizabeth Keckly to be brought to the Petersen Boarding House. Three messengers were sent looking for her, but all went to the wrong address. Elizabeth returned to the White House the following morning to a grieving Mary who asked her, "Why did you not come to me last night, Elizabeth -- I sent for you?" Keckly responded, "I did try to come to you, but I could not find you."
Over the next two years, Elizabeth Keckly remained an important part of Mary Lincoln’s life. She accompanied Mary to Chicago, helping to comfort her during this difficult time. By 1867, Elizabeth Keckly had returned to Washington, D.C. when Mary Lincoln again asked for her help in New York City. Following President Lincoln’s death, Mary grew deeper into debt, and she asked Elizabeth to help her raise some money by selling some of her possessions. Elizabeth aided her in this effort but it ended in scandal as the media criticized Mary for going against Victorian principles by selling her wardrobe and other items. To help Mary, Elizabeth Keckly also wrote to other prominent African American leaders, including Frederick Douglass, to raise money. She also placed some of Abraham Lincoln’s possessions on a tour to help raise additional funds. Unfortunately, Mary was angered as she hadn’t agreed to this exhibition, and their friendship began to sour.
In 1868, Elizabeth Keckly decided to write about her life and her side of the story in an autobiography, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. In this autobiography, Elizabeth covered her enslaved life but also the years spent in the White House. She was immediately met with criticism. The media criticized it for going into intimate details of her friendship with Mary, arguing that it violated the norms of society. Mary Lincoln expressed her anger about the book as it included the dress-selling scandal. Elizabeth Keckly explained in the preface that she was trying to show Mary in a sympathetic light but to no avail. The two never spoke again. Robert Lincoln, embarrassed by the scandal, used his influence to halt publication of the book and few copies were sold. The book’s scandal damaged Elizabeth Keckly’s reputation, and she lost many of her clients.
Despite these challenges, she continued to work as dressmaker for decades until 1892 when she accepted a faculty position at Wilberforce University in Ohio as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts. After a stroke the following year, she resigned and returned to Washington D.C. She lived her remaining years at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, which she had helped to found years earlier. She died on May 26, 1907 and was buried in Columbian Harmony Cemetery in D.C. When Columbian Harmony was closed in 1959, all of the remains, including Elizabeth’s, were moved to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover Maryland. While Elizabeth Keckly's grave was initially unmarked, in 2010 a new bronze and granite marker was placed and dedicated to her.
Last updated: February 15, 2022