Life Story: Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907)

From Slavery to Fashion Entrepreneur

The story of a woman who purchased her own freedom and became the dressmaker of the First Lady.

Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual assault and violence.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley, 1861. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, 1861.

Purple velvet dress made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Lincoln

Purple velvet dress made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Lincoln, ca. 1861–1862. Division of Political and Military History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Bequest of Mrs. Julian James.

Elizabeth Keckley was born in Virginia in 1818. She was the child of a forced sexual relationship between her mother, Agnes, and Agnes’s enslaver, Colonel Amistad Burwell. Although she was half white, Elizabeth inherited the status of an enslaved person from her mother. Elizabeth did not learn the truth about her parentage until she was an adult. She never received special treatment from her father or his white family.

When she was only four years old, Elizabeth was forced to work watching her enslaver’s newborn baby, who was her half-sister. Elizabeth was so young that she did not know how to care for a newborn. She rocked the cradle too hard and the baby rolled out. The Burwell family harshly punished its enslaved people for even minor mistakes. They were so cruel that one of Elizabeth’s enslaved uncles committed suicide after one of his tools was stolen rather than be punished by the Burwell family. Little Elizabeth was severely beaten for her mistake, which left a lasting impression on her young mind.

Elizabeth was about 14 years old when Colonel Burwell sent her to live with his eldest son, who was also her half-brother, in North Carolina. The son had recently married, and Elizabeth was assigned to be a servant in his new home. The son and his new wife were very cruel to Elizabeth, perhaps because they were aware of their familial relationship. They frequently beat her to try to break her spirit. They also sent her to live and work for a white neighbor who forced her to have a sexual relationship with him for four years. Like her mother, Elizabeth became pregnant with the white man’s child. In 1839, she gave birth to a son she named George.

Shortly after the birth of her child, Colonel Burwell called Elizabeth back to Virginia. The Colonel gave Elizabeth, George, and her mother, Agnes, to his daughter Ann Garland (Elizabeth’s half-sister) as a wedding gift. Ann’s household was never prosperous. In 1847, they moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to make a new start, bringing Elizabeth, George, and Agnes with them. When they arrived, Ann proposed renting out Elizabeth’s mother as a day servant to make money. Elizabeth feared that her elderly mother would not survive such hard work, so she begged Ann to give her a chance to make money for the family another way. Ann agreed to let her try.

Agnes had been a seamstress for the Burwell family and had taught Elizabeth how to make clothing. She decided to see if she could make that skill profitable. Elizabeth started to make fashionable dresses for wealthy women. Her dresses were very stylish, well-made, and fitted to each client’s body. She quickly earned a reputation as one of the best dressmakers in the city and was soon taking orders from St. Louis’s wealthiest women. As an enslaved woman, Elizabeth was not allowed to keep her earnings, but she made enough money to support her enslaver’s household of 18 people. Most importantly for Elizabeth, she kept her elderly mother from being sent to work at a stranger’s home.

The burden of single-handedly supporting the Garland family left Elizabeth exhausted, and she started to make plans to gain freedom for herself and George. She married a man named James Keckley. James told Elizabeth he was a free man, but he was in fact enslaved. Their marriage was not a happy one. In the early 1850s, Elizabeth asked her enslavers what it would cost to buy her and George’s freedom. They initially refused to discuss the matter, but Elizabeth persisted. In 1852, they set a price of $1,200, which would be about $40,000 today. Elizabeth had no way of earning that sum of money because all of her income from dressmaking belonged to the family. With Ann’s approval, she made a plan to travel to New York to ask abolitionists for help, but one of her local clients heard about her plan and raised money for Elizabeth. Many of Elizabeth’s clients donated to her freedom fund. On November 15, 1855, Elizabeth was finally able to pay Ann the $1,200, and she and George were officially freed.

Elizabeth was able to open her own dress shop and hired 20 assistants to help her with her work. She also started a charity to help recently freed people start new lives.

Now a free Black woman, Elizabeth worked as a dressmaker in St. Louis for the next five years. With her earnings, she paid back every person who had donated to her freedom fund. In 1860, she decided to move to Washington, D.C.  She formally separated from her husband when she left. She enrolled George in Wilberforce University in Ohio and set off to start a new life in the nation’s capital.

Elizabeth’s St. Louis network of wealthy and powerful clients helped her get started in Washington, D.C.  One woman convinced the city’s mayor to waive the large fee Elizabeth had to pay to live there as a free Black woman. Another introduced her to Varina Davis, wife of Senator Jefferson Davis. Varina hired her as a personal stylist and dressmaker and agreed to let Elizabeth make dresses for other clients for half the day. During her time working for Varina, Elizabeth met the wives of some of the most wealthy and powerful men in the country. She overheard many discussions about the possibility of the country going to war with itself over the issue of slavery. When the Davis family decided to move back South to help found the Confederacy, Varina offered to pay to bring Elizabeth with her. But Elizabeth believed the Union would win the coming war and decided to stay in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after the Davis family left, the Lincoln family arrived in the White House. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln needed a dressmaker to make sure she always looked her best. One of Elizabeth’s clients recommended her to the First Lady, who was very impressed with her work. Elizabeth became Mary’s personal dressmaker and stylist. Over the next four years, she also became a close friend and confidant of Mary. With Mary’s support, Elizabeth’s business flourished. She was able to open her own dress shop and hired 20 assistants to help her with her work. Elizabeth also started a charity to help recently freed people start new lives. But the Civil War did not leave her untouched. George joined the Union Army and was killed in battle in Missouri in 1861. The First Lady had also lost a child. This shared experience was one of the things that brought Elizabeth and Mary closer together.

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Elizabeth moved to Illinois with Mary for a short time before returning to her shop in Washington, D.C. In 1867, she tried to help Mary sell some of her dresses and jewelry to pay off debts. Unfortunately, word of the private sale leaked and the press criticized Mary for selling items of historical significance. Elizabeth responded by publishing a memoir of her life in 1868. The first four chapters of Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House told the story of Elizabeth’s time as an enslaved woman and her early career as a free Black dressmaker. The other 21 chapters were a very intimate account of the private lives of Mary and Abraham Lincoln. Elizabeth hoped the book would humanize her friend, but it backfired. White Americans accused Elizabeth of crossing the boundaries of race, class, and friendship. Most of her wealthy clients cut ties with her. Rumors swirled that Mary ended her relationship