A Woman to Know: Elizabeth Keckly

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.’ — Elizabeth Keckly

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.’ — Elizabeth Keckly

(image via White House Historical Association)

Elizabeth was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia in 1817, the daughter of Agnes, a young slave, and Armistead Burwell, the white planter who raped Agnes and owned her family. Agnes kept the identity of Elizabeth’s true father a secret, but she taught the young girl how to sew — the skill that would forever change Elizabeth’s life — and prayed her daughter would one day escape slavery. She revealed the secret of Elizabeth’s birth on her deathbed, just before Elizabeth was sold to Armistead’s brother in North Carolina, then again to a family in St. Louis.

But in St. Louis, Elizabeth’s life changed. Her owners there needed her to make money outside the house, and because she could read, they asked her to put her sewing skills to use and start a business. Soon, clients flocked to see the talented seamstress, and Elizabeth began saving money to buy freedom for her and her young son, George.

In 1855, she paid the family $1,200 for freedom, and she and George moved to Washington, DC. Her reputation as a seamstress followed her, and soon, business was booming. In 1861, when Mary Todd Lincoln began looking for a personal dressmaker, Elizabeth’s high-society clients sang her praises. Mary Todd commissioned her to make an inauguration dress — from there, the two were inseparable.

Mary Todd treated Elizabeth as her dearest friend and confidante, relying on her for support and assistance. Abe Lincoln himself thanked Elizabeth for her friendship with the First Lady, and he addressed her as “Madame Elizabeth.” The Lincolns supported Elizabeth when she started the Contraband Relief Association with Frederick Douglass, which worked to help freed slaves living in DC. When her beloved George died fighting in the Civil War, the Lincolns encouraged Elizabeth to teach sewing at Wilberforce University, her son’s alma mater.

On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Mary Todd called for Elizabeth, who ran to the White House to comfort her grieving friend. When Elizabeth asked for some mementos to remember the President, the First Lady gifted her numerous items, including Abraham’s inkwell and the cloak Mary Todd herself wore to Ford’s Theater.

But in 1867, a few years after her husband’s death, Mary Todd faced severe backlash in the press. People ridiculed her fragile mental health and accused her of exploiting her First Lady-dom for fame and money. When a publisher approached Elizabeth about writing a memoir of her years in the White House, she enthusiastically agreed, seeing it as a way to share another side of her dear friend.

“Behind the Scenes” was an instant bestseller; but Mary Todd, however, was aghast at the intrusion. Even though Elizabeth’s memoir ultimately painted Mary Todd in a sympathetic light, including excerpts from their correspondence in the book felt like a betrayal. Mary Todd severed all contact with her former friend, and Elizabeth returned to life outside politics.

She dedicated the rest of her life to sharing her sewing talents with other young black women, just as her mother had taught her back in Virginia. But teaching barely paid the bills, and Elizabeth would spend her final years in Washington’s Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children. When she died in 1907, at age 89, she still kept a photo of Mary Todd by her bedside, as a reminder of their former friendship.

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