Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly, called Lizzy, was born into slavery in Virginia in February 1818. In spite of her initial status, she went on to achieve renown as a seamstress and dressmaker to Varina Davis (wife of Jefferson Davis), Mary Custis Lee (wife of Robert E. Lee), and Mary Lincoln, inter alia. She also wrote a memoir about her life and the famous women she had known.
Lizzy was put to work at the age of four by her owners, Robert and Anna Burwell, and was beaten brutally when she could not perform tasks to their satisfaction.
At fourteen, Lizzy was sent to live in North Carolina as a loan to Burwell’s eldest son. As Lizzy’s memoir (but not this book for children) recounted, her presence caused rancor with young Mrs. Burwell, who encouraged Mr. Bingham, the village schoolmaster, to abuse Keckley physically in order to subdue her “proud, rebellious spirit.” During this period, she was raped by a white man, and gave birth to a son, George.
Eventually she was sent to St. Louis to live with Robert’s sister and her husband, the Garlands. Mr. Garland could not support his family, so Lizzy became a dressmaker and supported Garland’s entire household for over two years.
She married James Keckly around 1852, discovering only afterward that he was not a free man. Prior to her marriage, Lizzy had negotiated with the Garlands to purchase her freedom and that of her son, but she could not raise the required $1,200, because of the strain of supporting both her “dissipated” husband and the Garland household, per her autobiography. Sympathetic dressmaking customers loaned Keckley the money and she was able to make the two purchases in 1855.
In 1860, she left her husband, took her son, and moved to Washington, D.C., where she set up a dressmaking shop. She became very popular among the political wives, and her work was in great demand. Her labor-intensive creations were hand-made of course, “stitch by stitch.” The author explains that Lizzy also created opportunities for other African American women, employing almost twenty Black seamstresses in her shop by 1865.
She and Mary Lincoln became confidants, but after Lizzy published her memoir in 1868, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Mary Lincoln felt Lizzy had violated her trust, and broke off all contact with her. Historian Lina Mann, writing for The White House Historical Association observed:
“By writing down the story of her enslavement, her intimate conversations with Washington’s elite women, and her relationship with Mary Lincoln, Keckly violated social norms of privacy, race, class, and gender. Although other formerly enslaved people like Frederick Douglass wrote generally well received memoirs during the same time period, Keckly’s was more divisive. Her choice to publish correspondence between herself and Mary Lincoln was seen as an infringement on the former first lady’s privacy.”
Nevertheless, Mann added, “her recollections have been used by many historians to reconstruct the Lincoln White House and better understand one of the nation’s most fascinating and misunderstood first ladies. Her story is integral to White House history and understanding the experiences of enslaved and free Black women.”
In 1892, at age 74, Lizzy was offered a position as the head of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce Univeristy in Ohio. In the late 1890s she returned to Washington, D.C. to live in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children. It was, the author explains, an institution Lizzy herself helped create. Lizzy died in 1907.
Back matter includes an Author’s Note, timeline, and further resources.
Clever mixed-media illustrations Elizabeth Zunon incorporate fabric, ribbons, and trimmings like embroidery, and appliqué into the artwork.
Evaluation: This book for readers 7 and older raises a number of interesting issues for further exploration. It not only offers interesting insights into slavery, but also into life among the political wives in Washington prior to the Civil War. In addition, the fact that a Black woman and ex-slave could open and sustain a thriving business in the post-Civil War capitol is fascinating as well. (According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, what Keckly was most known for amongst women in Washington who wanted a dress from her was “her fit and her adeptness when it came to draping fabric on the body. She was known to be the dressmaker in D.C. because her garments had extraordinary fit.”
Published by Holiday House, 2021
A fascinating story. Thank you. I enjoyed reading this review.
Fascinating history. Love those dress designs.