By Jueseppi B.
This is the first in a daily series of Black Americans who inspire, and emulate the type of American we all should strive to become. This series is called “One A Day“, my tribute to Black History Month. In a previous article, I informed how and why Black History Month came to be, now I will inform you of 29 Black Americans you might not know. My gratitude and appreciation go to Ms. Shelley Peterson whom assisted in the gathering of these little known Black History Month subjects.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (February 1818 – May 1907) (sometimes spelled Keckly) was a former slave turned successful seamstress who is most notably known as being Mary Todd Lincoln‘s personal modiste and confidante, and the author of her autobiography, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Mrs. Keckley utilized her intelligence, keen business savvy, and sewing and design skills to arrange and ultimately buy her freedom (and that of her son George as well), and later enjoyed regular business with the wives of the government elite as her base clientele.
After several years in St. Louis, she moved to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1860. Utilizing both perseverance and an ability to ingratiate herself with those of influence, she was able to distinguish herself among notable women of society in the nation’s capitol who sought out her dressmaking skills. Among her clients were Varnia Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, and Mary Anne Randolph Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee.
Keckly’s relationship with the President’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln was the most noteworthy as it was distinguished not only by its endurance over time but the nature of the association. A mutual respect and trust was established between the two women and Keckly was not only dressmaker to the First Lady, but an invaluable confidante to Mrs. Lincoln in times of emotional crisis.
NAME: Elizabeth Keckley (nee Elizabeth Hobbs)
BIRTH DATE: ca. 1818/9
BIRTH PLACE: Hillsborough, NC
EDUCATION: Lizzie, as she was referred to, had no formal education. She received her outstanding skills as a seamstress from her mother, who not only sewed for the Colonel’s family, but made extra money for the Colonel by sewing for his friends and acquaintances. Lizzie’s skills as a seamstress eventually helped earn her freedom and that of her son.
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Lizzie’s parents were George and Agnes Hobbs. Her father had a different master from her and her mother, and lived 100 miles from Lizzie. Lizzie’s father was allowed to visit only at Easter and Christmas. After age 7 or 8 Lizzie never saw her father again, as his master moved away, taking George with him. Lizzie was with her mother most of the time until her teenage years; then she was given to the Colonel’s son and his bride as a wedding gift. Lizzie’s skills as a seamstress were taught to her by her mother during her childhood.
Lizzie’s only child, George, was named after her father. George’s father was a friend and neighbor of the Colonel’s son. George was born through an unwanted and forced relationship. Lizzie married James Keckley in 1852 and within a few years found out he wasn’t free and was an alcoholic. Lizzie’s master had promised she could buy freedom for herself and her son after he died; but she did not have the money when he passed away. Thanks to the generosity of one of her patrons, she was loaned the $1200 she needed for their freedom.
- While living in Baltimore, Lizzie’s first residence of freedom, she started a school for young black girls to teach them sewing and etiquette.
- She became the personal dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln after her work on Mary’s Inaugural Ball gown pleased President and Mrs. Lincoln very much.
- Lizzie presided over as president and founder of the first Black Contraband Relief Association.
- She represented Wilberforce College at the 1893 Columbian World’s Exhibition in Chicago, an event that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus‘ discovery of America.
- Lizzie was Mary Todd Lincoln’s best friend and confidante. She seemed to be the only person who understood and tolerated Mary’s unstable temperament and sharp tongue.
- Lizzie Keckley wrote a book, Behind the Scenes, about the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, and the happenings in the White House during Lincoln’s tenure. The book was very controversial and Mary Todd’s eldest son had the book removed from publication.
Up next…..Garrett Augustus Morgan, inventor stop light & gas mask.
“Disagree Intelligently, Use Facts, Truth & Common Sense.”