Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History lived an African American woman named Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley who became one of the most popular dressmakers of the 1800s, designing and crafting attire for the first lady of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born in the state of Virginia in the year of 1818, enslaved. She was then later in her life taken to St. Louis, Missouri which is where she became a popular seamstress and dressmaker in the area, so popular in fact that her slavers permitted her in writing to leave the property that she was once unable to wander from due to the slave codes, and make her rounds in the city of St. Louis all alone.
Keckley attended the First African Baptist Church, the oldest African American church west of the Mississippi River, in order to teach children to read and write, but she did so by pretending to teach a sewing class. Under that same guise, she assisted John Berry Meachum, the pastor and founder of the First African Baptist Church, in aiding African Americans in whatever was needed. Elizabeth would secretly teach in the basement of the church where there was a school for African Americans. This goes back to how important the Black church was for African Americans who were enslaved because congregating for them was illegal, known as slave codes, which also made it illegal for African Americans to learn how to read and write without permission. The only place congregations of African Americans were allowed was in church, so this was were many secret meetings were held as well as worship.
Elizabeth’s mother was always with her, having never been separated from her mother from birth, however, the slaver Garland had fallen on bad times and needed someone to sell. He thought to sell her mother, and this pained her so much that she fought and worked to keep her mother with her so that she wouldn’t be sold among strangers. She details this in her book:
“My mother, my poor aged mother, go among strangers to toil for a living! No, a thousand times no! I would rather work my fingers to the bone, bend over my sewing till the film of blindness gathered in my eyes; nay, even beg from street to street. I told Mr. Garland so, and he gave me permission to see what I could do. I was fortunate in obtaining work, and in a short time I had acquired something of a reputation as a seamstress and dress-maker. The best ladies in St. Louis were my patrons, and when my reputation was once established I never lacked for orders.“
Not only did she want freedom for her mother, but she also wanted it for herself and child. She was approved to go up North to plea money for her freedom, however, the women of St. Louis made it much easier for her.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley Purchases Her Freedom & Becomes an Entrepreneur
As stated in her autobiography, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was so popular in St. Louis by being a very skilled seamstress and teacher while being active in the church, she got to know many other women who became patrons. It was from these patrons that she got the money to purchase her freedom as well as her sons in 1855 to the cost of $1200. In today’s US dollar, that equals the purchasing power of $40K. It was then after that she relocated to Washington D.C. and became a well-known dressmaker and entrepreneur.
Her dressmaking skills caught the attention of many powerful people, such as the wife of then Senator Jefferson Davis, Verina Howell Davis and even Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of president Abraham Lincoln right there in the White House. It was Mary Todd Lincoln who hired her as her own personal dressmaker and traveling confidante. This means that many of the dresses/attire worn by Lincoln’s wife and others were of African American design and craft. This also means that Elizabeth Keckley was one of the best dressmakers/designers of that time period, crafting clothing for the most posh in the United States of America.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley Authors Autobiographical Account of her Life
Of course, while she designed dresses, Elizabeth learned many insider secrets from Lincoln’s wife who already had a damaged reputation for being woman of not much decorum. Therefore when she wrote about Mary in her book, she didn’t exactly hesitate, but kept with the truth as stated in her autobiography:
“My own character, as well as the character of Mrs. Lincoln, is at stake, since I have been intimately associated with that lady in the most eventful periods of her life. I have been her confidante, and if evil charges are laid at her door, they also must be laid at mine, since I have been a party to all her movements. To defend myself I must defend the lady that I have served. The world have judged Mrs. Lincoln by the facts which float upon the surface, and through her have partially judged me, and the only way to convince them that wrong was not meditated is to explain the motives that actuated us. I have written nothing that can place Mrs. Lincoln in a worse light before the world than the light in which she now stands, therefore the secret history that I publish can do her no harm.“
“I do not forget, before the public journals vilified Mrs. Lincoln, that ladies who moved in the Washington circle in which she moved, freely canvassed her character among themselves. They gloated over many a tale of scandal that grew out of gossip in their own circle. If these ladies, could say everything bad of the wife of the President, why should I not be permitted to lay her secret history bare, especially when that history plainly shows that her life, like all lives, has its good side as well as its bad side! None of us are perfect, for which reason we should heed the voice of charity when it whispers in our ears, “Do not magnify the imperfections of others.” Had Mrs. Lincoln’s acts never become public property, I should not have published to the world the secret chapters of her life.“
It was in 1868 Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley authored the book titled Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years at the White House. [Read for free here] It was her own autobiography, not meant to be a tell all in a negative way, but it told all anyway about her life that she wanted to reveal, both the extraordinary and the hard truths, about herself and others.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley & Her Abolitionist Movement
Elizabeth was not just a dress maker and writer, but she also organized to assist African American people escaping slavery to Washington DC. She did this through organizing the Women’s Contraband Relief Association. There was a big rush of African American women (over 400,000 out of millions) who fled the South during the Civil War because their slavers were out fighting.
It was through this Women’s Contraband Relief Association that formerly enslaved found food, shelter, clothing and even bedding through funding secured through Keckley.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley’s Death
In 1907, Keckley passed away in Washington DC and was buried in National Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery in Hyattsville, Maryland.
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri)01 Feb 1987, Sun Page 51
- Photo is public domain from 1800s wikipedia