Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (Circa Feb 1818 - May 1907) was former slave who became a successful businesswoman (seamstress/fashion designer), civic activist, author and close friend, confidante and advisor to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln.
                              Elizabeth  Keckley, the first black fashion designer in white house

In 1818, Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Dinwiddie, Virginia, the property of Armistead and Mary Burwell. Burwell was a plantation owner with 70 slaves* and a colonel in the U.S.’s War of 1812.
Elizabeth’s mother Agnes, a house slave, had been taught to read and write; a special privilege for it was illegal to educate slaves, lest they might seek freedom. Later Elizabeth would also be taught to read and write.
Elizabeth, with a light complexion, never knew who her father was until her mother on her death bed told her. The man who fathered her was Colonel Burwell, their owner, and a father of 10 children by his wife Mary. It is unknown if Colonel Burwell forced himself on Agnes.

But Elizabeth did have a stepfather, George Pleasant Hobbs, a slave on a nearby plantation, who was allowed to marry Agnes and who loved Agnes and his “darling little Lizzie.” But when Colonel Burwell moved to another plantation, as did George’s owner, Agnes and George at first saw each other again only on Christmas and Easter, and then never again.

For the rest of their lives, with permission from their owners, and with the fervent hope they would reunite, Agnes and George wrote loving letters to each other, letters which Elizabeth treasured for the rest of her life.
In 1825, seven year old Elizabeth saw her first slave auction. Colonel Burwell bought some hogs and was unable to pay for them in full, so he had the cook’s small son “little Joe” brought to him and he sold the child at auction. The hysterical mother pleaded for her child but to no avail and when she continued pleading each day, she was whipped to silence her.

At age 14 in 1832, Elizabeth was given to the Colonel’s eldest son Robert when Robert married Margaret Anna Robertson. Robert, a Presbyterian minister, and his family subsequently moved to North Carolina and they took Elizabeth with them.
Margaret Burwell despised Elizabeth and induced a schoolmaster William Bingham to try to break her spirit. On three occasions he severely beat Elizabeth, who absorbed the beatings, her spirit unbroken. Afterward, those beatings continued for a time by her owner Robert, the Presbyterian minister.
                                        Liz Keckly the civic activist

But while these men could not break Elizabeth’s spirit, she was forced to have a four year sexual relationship with a prominent white man, Alexander Kirkland. From that relationship, in 1839 she bore her only child, a son she named George in honor of her stepfather and she gave the child the last name of Kirkland for the man who fathered him.
After George’s birth, Elizabeth was sent back to Virginia with her baby to serve Colonel Burwell’s daughter Ann Burwell Garland and Garland’s husband Hugh. However the Garlands had severe financial problems and they sold some of their slaves to raise money.
But they did not sell Elizabeth or George and in the years that followed the family relocated to St. Louis. There Elizabeth developed a remarkable skill as a dressmaker, and built an upscale white clientele for her dresses. Her income was so substantial, it supported the Garland family and their slaves, 17 people, paying for the Garlands to live in comfort, as she remained a slave
                               Elizabeth Keckley Seamstress to Mary Lincoln

Keckley met her future husband, James, in St. Louis, but refused to marry him until she and her son were free. For two years, Elizabeth pleaded with Hugh Garland to free her and her son George but she was too valuable and he refused. After his death, a Burwell family member agreed to free them but set a premium price of $1200. To raise so large an amount of money Elizabeth appealed to her white patrons, who in 1855 paid this sum and Elizabeth and her son were free at last.

Elizabeth remained in St. Louis until she earned enough money to repay her patrons. She had married James Keckley, a black man, but as a result of his alcoholism, divorced him. she enrolled her son in the newly established Wilberforce University. Later she and her son moved to Baltimore, Maryland. She intended to run classes for young "colored women" to teach her system of cutting and fitting dresses. She was not successful; after six weeks had hardly enough money to get to Washington, DC, which she thought might offer better chances for work." At the time, Maryland was passing many repressive laws against free blacks.

In 1860, Elizabeth relocated to Washington, DC and with her outstanding skills and her reputation as a leading dressmaker, built a substantial clientele among the white elite.
Ironically, among the elite, she and her staff created gowns for Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, wife of later Confederate General Robert E. Lee and for Varina Banks Howell Davis, married to Jefferson Davis, who would become the President of the Confederate States of America when the South withdrew from the U.S. to uphold its right to slavery.

That withdrawal set off the U.S. Civil War (1861 – 1865). When the North defeated the South, it ended 250 years of U.S. slavery, with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
But prior to the Civil War, through her clientele (Margaret MaClean), Elizabeth was introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the new President, Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861, the day of Abraham Lincoln's first inauguration. This was at a time, as it had always been, when the black people who visited the White House were slaves and those who worked menial jobs.
              Elizabeth made this quilt with leftover scraps of material that she used to stitch Mary's dresses. It is 85 1/2 inches square.

                    This is a picture of the dress that Keckly designed for Mrs. Lincoln.

Now from her relationship with the First Lady and with the President, Elizabeth was welcomed in as a person of respect and importance, perhaps the first of her race to receive such recognition in the White House.
But tragedy struck. Early in the U.S. Civil War, Elizabeth’s son George enlisted in the Northern Army and was killed in battle in 1861. While early in 1862, the Lincoln’s 11 year old son Willie died of tuberculosis. The two women as mothers comforted each other through their traumatic loss and heartache.
Elizabeth and the First Lady became such close friends that not only did Elizabeth make gowns for her but helped to dress Mary Lincoln and helped her do her hair. Eventually Elizabeth joined Mary and her staff in planning White House social events and joined Mary Lincoln on her New York shopping excursions. For Elizabeth had become her close friend, confidant and advisor.

For the rest of the Lincoln Presidency, and for years afterward, the women remained close, and Mary Lincoln’s dresses, worn at major social functions and for photographers were designed by Elizabeth.
        Dresses sewn by Madam Keckley for First Lady Mary Lincoln on Exhibition

Elizabeth had become well-known among the free black community, as well as among the white elite and was able to cross color lines like few other people of her time.
As a result, she used that celebrity to help start the Contraband Relief Association in 1862 from donations from Abraham and Mary Lincoln and other white patrons and free black people. This organization offered food and housing, clothing and counseling for slaves fleeing their masters and care for sick and injured black soldiers.

Behind The Scenes
"I Am Well Aware that I Have Invited Criticism": Elizabeth Keckley's Voice Endures.

In 1867, Mrs. Lincoln, who was deeply in debt because of extravagant spending, wrote to Keckley, asking for help in disposing of articles of value, including old clothes, by accompanying her to New York to find a broker to handle the sales. In late September, they arrived in New York, where Mrs. Lincoln used an alias for the duration of her visit. Keckley attempted to help by giving interviews to newspapers sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln's plight and wrote letters to friends like Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, a highly respected minister in the black church community. The fund raising effort became publicly known, and Mrs. Lincoln was severely criticized for selling clothes and other items associated with her husband's presidency.

Elizabeth Keckley donated her Lincoln memorabilia to Wilberforce College for its sale in fundraising to rebuild after a fire in 1865. Mrs. Lincoln was angry about her action, and Keckley changed her original intention to have the articles publicly displayed for fees in Europe. The publicity and criticism of Mrs. Lincoln strained their relationship, but they remained in contact, although not so close.
In 1868, Elizabeth Keckley published Behind the Scenes, to "attempt to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world" and to "explain the motives" that guided Mrs. Lincoln's decisions regarding what became known as the "old clothes scandal". She gained the help of James Redpath, an editor from New York and friend of Frederick Douglass, to help her edit and publish her book.
Keckley described her own rise from slavery to life as a middle-class businesswoman who employed staff to help complete her projects. She was claiming a part in the educated, mixed-race middle class of the black community. She emphasized her ability to overcome difficulties and the development of her business sense. While acknowledging the brutalities under slavery and the sexual abuse that led to the birth of her son George, she spent little time on those events. This was in contrast to other women's slave narratives, in which they revealed white men taking sexual advantage of them. Essentially she "veiled" her own past but, using alternating chapters, contrasted her life with that of Mary Todd Lincoln and "unveiled" the former First Lady, as she noted her debts.
Keckley wrote about the Lincolns, in a style of near hagiography for him, but with a cool, analytical eye for Mary Lincoln. Advertisements labeled the forthcoming book as a 'literary thunderbolt' and the publisher, Carleton & Company, joined in by declaring it as a 'great sensational disclosure'. The editor included letters from Mary Lincoln to Keckley in the book, and the seamstress was strongly criticized for violating Mrs. Lincoln's privacy.
     Read "Behind The Scene" here:http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=ABN9052

At a time when the white middle class struggled over "genteel performance", Keckley unveiled a white woman by the very title of her book, showing what went on behind the public scenes and revealing "private, domestic information involving, primarily, white women." The Lincolns had been subject to criticism as westerners early in his presidency, and Mary Todd Lincoln's anxiety about their position led to her trying to dress right and conduct the White House well. Critics such as Carolyn Soriso have identified Keckley's unveiling of Lincoln as the reason that the book generated such a backlash. A reviewer from the "Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer declared that they were pleased that Keckley's book was published, as it would serve as a warning "to those ladies whose husbands may be elevated to the position of the President of the United States not to put on airs and attempt to appear what their education, their habits of life and social position, and even personal appearance would not warrant." By writing about Lincoln, Keckley transgressed the law of tact. Her relationship with Lincoln was ambiguous, as it drew both from her work as an employee and from the friendship they developed, which did not meet the rules of gentility. People felt as if Keckley, an African American and former slave, had transgressed the boundaries that the middle class tried to maintain between public and private life.

Joanne Fleischner writes of the reaction to Keckley's book,
"Lizzy's intentions, like the spelling of her name, would thereafter be lost in history. At the age of fifty, she had violated Victorian codes not only of friendship and privacy, but of race, gender, and class. Not surprisingly, the newspapers that attacked Mary Lincoln in the fall, in the spring now leapt to her defense... The social threat represented by this black woman's agency also provoked other readers, and someone produced an ugly and viciously racist parody called Behind the Seams; by a Nigger Woman who Took Work in from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Davis and Signed with an "X," the Mark of "Betsey Kickley (Nigger), denoting its supposed author's illiteracy."
Stunned and dismayed by the negative publicity, Keckley wrote letters to newspaper editors and defended her serious intentions, which was part of the model of gentility. The uproar over the book subsided, but it did not sell well. The writer Joanne Fleischner has suggested that Mrs. Lincoln's son Robert, who was perpetually embarrassed by his mother's behavior in private life (and would have her committed to an asylum in 1875), did not want the public to know such intimate details as appeared in the memoir. He may have been involved in suppressing the sale and distribution of the memoir.
                                                  Elizabeth Keckley
The aftermath

With regard to Mrs. Lincoln's reaction, Mrs. Lincoln felt betrayed and extremely disturbed by the work's public disclosure of private conversations and letters that were written to Keckley. Keckley explained that she too had been betrayed; that James Redpath violated her trust by printing the letters he asked her to 'lend' him, as he promised not to disclose them and had not gained her consent for publication. The now destitute former First Lady permanently severed contact with Keckley.
In July 1869, during a European trip, Mrs. Lincoln was pleased to come across Sally Orne, a good friend from her Washington days. The two women spent every moment together reminiscing about the past and lamenting the present. Not since she had last seen Keckley had Mrs. Lincoln had the pleasant company and undivided attention of an old friend.
Elizabeth Keckley continued to attempt to earn money by sewing and teaching young women her techniques, while much of her white clientele stopped calling. Eventually she was in great need of money. In 1890 at age seventy-two, she made a drastic decision: to sell the Lincoln articles which she kept for thirty-five years. She sold twenty-six articles for $250, but it remains to be known how much she received from the transactions.
                                                       Elizabeth Keckly
In the years following, she moved frequently, but in 1892 she was offered a faculty position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts and moved to Ohio. Within a year, she organized a dress exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair. By the late 1890s, she returned to Washington, where she lived in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children (an institution established in part by funds contributed by the Contraband Association that she founded), presumably for health reasons.

In all it was a remarkable journey for a woman who had spent part of her life as the property of others, yet Elizabeth would live to see the promising new 20th Century, passing away at the age of 89 in 1907 as a resident of the National Home, located on Euclid St. NW. in Washington, DC.  She kept a photo of Mary Todd Lincoln with her for the rest of her life. A historic plaque installed across the street from the site of the former home commemorates her life.
Jennifer Fleischer wrote:
"Perhaps the most poignant illustration of the different fates of these two women is found in their final resting places. While Mary Lincoln lies buried in Springfield in a vault with her husband and sons, Elizabeth Keckley's remains have disappeared. In the 1960s, a developer paved over the Harmony Cemetery in Washington where Lizzy was buried, and when the graves were moved to a new cemetery, her unclaimed remains were placed in an unmarked grave—like those of her mother, slave father, and son."

Legacy and honors

The dress that Keckley designed for Lincoln to wear at her husband's second inauguration ceremony and reception is held by the Smithsonian's American History Museum.
Keckley designed a quilt made from scraps of materials left over from dresses made for Mrs. Lincoln. It is held by the Kent State University Museum and is pictured in the book, The Threads of Time, The Fabric of History (2007), by Rosemary E. Reed Miller, which features Keckley among numerous African-American designers.
The former school in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where Rev. Robert Burwell worked (and Keckley for him), has been designated as the Burwell School Historic Site. It addresses Keckley's life and times on its website.
Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian, by Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick
You are here: From Artifacts to America > One Artifact, Many Stories
Gown made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln, about 1864Gown made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln, about 1864Originally collected in 1916 for its associations with Mary Todd Lincoln, this purple velvet gown has received new attention from historians because of its connection with Elizabeth Keckley, an African American dressmaker and confidante of Mrs. Lincoln's. Born a slave in 1818, Keckley worked as a dressmaker in St. Louis, using her skills to buy freedom for herself and her son. After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1860, she built a successful career and became a prominent figure in the black community, organizing relief and educational programs for emancipated slaves. In 1868 she published Behind the Scenes, a memoir of her relationship with the first lady.

See alsoClothingFirst Ladies Collection

Return to the Legacies Home Page

© 2001, Smithsonian Institution Press. Media Inquiries.

Watch the slideshow of the dresses that lady Keckly sew and is at Smithsonian museum here:http://biblelessonsite.org/slidekeckley.html

Her autobiography prompted controversy and questions about the truth of her portrayals. In 1935, the journalist David Rankin Barbee wrote that Elizabeth Keckley had not written her autobiography, and never existed as a person. He said that the abolitionist writer Jane Swisshelm wrote the slave narrative to advance her abolitionist cause. Many people who read the article challenged his claim, citing personal and/or secondary acquaintance with Keckley. Barbee modified his statement, saying that "no such person as Elizabeth Keckley wrote the celebrated Lincoln book." She was been well-documented since then. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Keckley)

Further reading: http://www.quiltersworld.com/webbonuses/pdfs/elizabeth_keckley_mary.pdf

Smithsonian Puts Lincoln Items on Display

Mrs Lincoln Purple Dress Smithsonian

This purple velvet ensemble consists of a skirt, an evening and a daytime bodice. Smithsonian says the ensemble is believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave turned successful seamstress. It was worn by Mrs. Lincoln during the 1861-62 Washington winter social season. It's part of a new Lincoln exhibit called "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" that the Smithsonian is putting on display in D.C. for the Inauguration. An online version of the exhibit can be viewedhere.

Smithsonian photo by Hugh Talman


  1. I enjoyed this article immensely. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. I have heard of this woman before, but to read more about her was eye opening. It must have been a real scandal in those days to write about the first lady as a former slave. It was really inspiring to me as a Fashion Designer. Not much has changed from then to now unfortunately.

  3. Thank you for sharing. I found this post to be very informative and relevant. As for myself I am starting to spread my wings to fulfill a life long passion of mine in the fashion industry.


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