In history, black women’s stories are oftentimes hidden behind the lives of others. Whether it is a significant other or an employer, these women are often only taught in relation to others. Elizabeth Keckley is an example of this. Her name is often only mentioned around this time of year, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death. This is because she served as the modiste (dressmaker) and close confidant for Mary Todd Lincoln. Although she should be remembered for being an esteemed modiste for a first lady, her accomplishments outside of the White House should also be spoken about. Elizabeth Keckley became one of the most prominent black businesswomen in the 20th Century.
Elizabeth Keckley was born enslaved, in Virginia, in 1818. Her mother taught her how to sew and in the mid-1940s when the family that owned her had to relocate to St. Louis due to financial troubles, they began hiring her out as a seamstress. Although she was a slave and her master took any money that she earned, Elizabeth was able to build a reputation as a talented dressmaker. In her autobiography, “Behind the Scenes,” she speaks about the pride she took in her work and she was able to slowly put away money that the ladies she sewed for gave her.
With the money she saved, she was able to buy freedom for herself and her son in 1855. In 1860, she and her family moved to Washington D.C. This was only a few years before the Civil War and Washington D.C. had a growing, free, black population. There were black entrepreneurs throughout the city and Elizabeth Keckley became one of them. She quickly became a household name amongst the white elite of Washington. She even made dresses for Varina Davis, who eventually became the “first lady” of the Confederacy. In just a year, she became the modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln. She quickly became the First Lady’s confidant and was a fixture in the Lincoln White House. However, that was not all she did. Elizabeth Keckley made a point to train and employee other black women in the D.C. area. By 1865, she employed nearly twenty women in her shop on 12th street.
During the Civil War, Keckley used her position as both a businesswoman and a White House insider to provide relief for black refugees from the South. According to the Smithsonian Institution, by 1863, approximately 10,000 refugees had come to Washington. Although these people were now free, they were living in makeshift camps and in tents throughout the city. In response to this, Elizabeth and forty other member of her congregation at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church founded the Ladies’ Contraband Relief Association. As the First Lady’s preferred travel companion, Elizabeth Keckley was able to organize meetings in churches throughout the North in places like NYC in support of relief efforts. She was also able to collect contributions from Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, as well as prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass. In her autobiography, she wrote about the pride she felt seeing African-Americans supporting each other.
When she published her autobiography in 1868, her relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln suffered. Other elite white women in D.C. also turned their backs on her because they felt she had breached Mary’s trust. However, Keckley remained in D.C. for decades and continued her business and continued to teach other black women her craft. In 1892, she became the head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University and a year later, she curated a dress exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair.
By the end of the 19th Century, Elizabeth Keckley returned to Washington. She lived in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, an institution that was partially funded with money she had helped raise. She passed away in 1907 in the home.
Despite her prominence during the Civil War, Elizabeth Keckley has not remained a fixture in U.S. History. The first time I heard about her was my freshman year of college in a class about Lincoln’s Assassination. However, she should be spoken about outside of just her relationship with the Lincoln’s. Elizabeth Keckley was a craftswoman, entrepreneur, teacher, and philanthropist in her own right and she should be remembered for those things too.
Some of Elizabeth Keckley’s work:
Mary Todd Lincoln in one of Elizabeth Keckley’s dresses.
Sources used for this blog post: