Born into slavery, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley endured untold hardships at the hands of her master and half-brother Robert Burwell in Hillsborough, North Carolina. She eventually purchased her freedom in the 1850s. Self-reliant and enterprising, Keckley used her dressmaking skills to set up a successful business in pre-Civil War Washington D.C. where she became the modiste of choice for many of the most fashionable women in the nation’s capital.
Her talents and warmth eventually led her to become seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln and confidante to both Mary and Abraham Lincoln. After the assassination of President Lincoln, Keckly changed from Mary’s friend to her caretaker, as the former First Lady’s financial troubles mounted and her mental health declined.
In an effort to buoy their financial fortunes and to balance Lincoln’s battered public image, Keckley wrote Behind the Scenes: or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. It is regarded as both a slave narrative and, in the words of historian William Andrews, “the first major text to represent the interests and aims of this nascent African American leadership class in the postwar era.”
Elizabeth Keckley is now remembered as an entrepreneur, fashion designer, abolitionist, educator, writer, community activist, and friend to Mary Todd Lincoln.
Books from Blair
Behind the Scenes (Eno Publishers)
The Elizabeth Keckley Reader (Eno Publishers)