Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: Dressmaker, Author, Activist

The ability to rise out of a challenging and detrimental life situation and find a niche is no easy
feat. Breaking into fashion in the age of slavery and becoming a dressmaker for the First Lady
is all the more difficult, to say the least. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, although often unknown or
forgotten, served as the dressmaker and confidant for Mary Lincoln, and effectively bridged the
gap between the working class and the elite; writing about it in her book, Behind the Scenes.
Hobbs Keckley established herself as a dressmaker and as a prominent individual through her
life experiences.
Hobbs Keckley’s life started as anything but easy. Enslaved beginning at birth, the family she
belonged to had an abroad marriage, and did not live together all of the time. At fourteen, she
went to live with her master’s son, Robert Burwell, and his wife. Keckley’s pride and spirit and
stubbornness at times was met with beatings and violence from Burwell as well as her
schoolteacher; Keckley showed strong passion from a young age. Following having a son as
the product of the cruel and violent act of rape, Keckley, then twenty-one, was sent to live with
her master’s daughter, Ann Burwell Garland, and Ann’s husband, Hugh. From then, as the
family moved to St. Louis, she accompanied them, and there, started working as a seamstress,
and a dressmaker; using skills her mother taught her at a very young age. Supporting the
whole Garland family with her work, it was then that Keckley’s luck seemed to turn.
Through word of mouth from the Garland family, as well as others seeing her work, Keckley
became a household name; designing and creating for some of St. Louis’ most elite. James
Keckley came into her life around this same time, a man she had known from when she was in
Virginia, and she agreed to marry him on the condition that Hugh Garland allow her to purchase.
Despite the fact that she was not free at the time, Elizabeth Hobbs married Keckley, however,
Garland settled on the price of $1,200 to purchase Hobbs Keckley’s freedom. Keckley
borrowed money from some of her clients and patrons, and although her marriage did not last,
she was able to buy her and her son’s freedom, move to Washington D.C., as well as pay back
all that she had borrowed.
Owning her own thriving dress shop in Washington D.C. served as the catalyst for Keckley to
meet Mary Lincoln, incidentally on President Abraham Lincoln’s first day in office. She began
doing much work for Mrs. Lincoln, and in the process, formed a wonderful rapport and friendship
with her, as well. Her position designing for Mrs. Lincoln, as well as her acquaintanceship with
the Lincoln family and the White House opened the door for her to become a notable figure in
D.C.’s free Black community, where she both founded and served as president of the
Contraband Relief Association, which later became the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldier’s Relief
Association. And of course, during this time, Keckley continued to design and sew pieces for
Mary Lincoln, the perfect and ideal elite client that a seamstress could have dreamed of during
the time.

Keckley had the opportunity to stay along and aid the Lincoln family even in the wake of
Lincoln’s assasination. However, when she published her book, Behind the Scenes in 1868,
she revealed somewhat personal and controversial information, thus placing a strain on Lincoln
and Keckley’s long standing relationship and friendship. The White House also reacted
negatively to the book’s publication; essentially black listing Keckley, and making it challenging
for Keckley to find a job following her departure from the White House. She made a turnaround,
though, and in 1892, at seventy-four years old, she became the head of the Department of
Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
Although Keckley’s career could seem insignificant, and she could seem like just another
seamstress who designed for the elite, Keckley was more than just another designer for a
famous figure. Keckley’s influence on the Lincoln family, as well as politics as a whole was
monumental, specifically for the time. While one of Keckley’s pieces, a purple velvet gown worn
by Mary Lincoln to President Lincoln’s second inauguration is on display at Smithsonian’s
American History Museum, it is her design work and futuristic work within the White House that
should be remembered. By: Emily Goldberg