Keckley rose from slavery as couturier, author
By Becky Stiles
Museum of the Albemarle
Sunday, February 17, 2019
To celebrate Black History Month, I wanted to reflect on the life and work of Elizabeth Keckley. If you’re unsure of who she is, or why, like myself, you don’t remember her name from your history classes, let me begin with this: She was among one of the first African American women to publish a book.
Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in February of 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia, to Agnes Hobbs and George Pleasant. Before she would earn her place as one of the reigning couturiers of high society in Washington, D.C., Keckley would endure years of harsh beatings and would survive rape, to secure her and her son’s freedom.
At the age of 14, she was sent to live, “on a generous loan”, to the eldest son of Armistead Burwell —Robert. Armistead was the slave owner of Keckley’s mother, Agnes. The family would move from Chesterfield, Virginia, to Hillsborough, North Carolina, and it was here that Keckley experienced the true cruelty of Robert’s wife, Margaret.
Margaret wanted to break Keckley of her “stubborn pride”, and in doing this, she enlisted the help of a neighbor, William Bingham. Having to endure countless beatings, and still trying to hold onto herself through all of this, she would then survive rape at the hands of Alexander Kirkland. She would become a mother to a son she’d name George and would return to Virginia serving another member of the Burwell family — Ann Burwell, who was now her half-sister.
While I don’t want to glorify Keckley’s cruel treatment, I can’t ignore it, because she survived so much for a woman who would be remembered in the fashion world. She’d meet her future husband in the 1850s but would refuse to marry him until she and her son were free.
With the help of the connections she had been making with the women in the white community, as well as being a prominent dressmaker in that community, she collected enough money to buy her and her son’s freedom in 1855.
In 1861, a year after opening her own dressmaking shop, Keckley dressed Mary Todd Lincoln for the first time, and would become the first lady’s modiste. Initially, she did all the work by herself, but as her business began to grow, Keckley was able to hire a team of seamstresses. Her design style was well known, as she grew acclaim for her ability to skillfully fit garments. The dress she designed for Mary Todd Lincoln to wear at her husband’s 2nd inauguration ceremony is currently on display at the Smithsonian American History Museum.
Unfortunately, after the assassination of Lincoln, Keckley and Mary Todd’s relationship, and friendship, would suffer greatly. After the publication of Keckley’s memoir, Mary Todd felt betrayed by what Keckley chose to disclose in her memoir, including private letters and an intimate portrait into the life of the Lincoln family. Once more, Keckley was taken advantage of, only this time it was the editor, James Redpath, who’d betrayed Keckley’s trust by publishing the letters he’d promised not to. Keckley was highly criticized for her full disclosure into the Lincoln family, but her intentions were not malicious, which is what so many failed to recognize.
While this article doesn’t begin to go into greater detail of her life, I hope it has convinced someone to read more about her. She started the Contraband Relief Association, committed herself to teaching young African American women her trade, and for a time headed the domestic sciences department at Wilberforce University. Her son attended there for a time, before dying on a Civil War battlefield.
Keckley spent her last years in Washington D.C., and finally had her obituary posted in December 2018, as part of a New York Times series of remarkable individuals whose deaths went unreported.
Rebecca Stiles is the Administrative Assistant at Museum of the Albemarle.