How a Seamstress Went From Slavery to the White House

Seamstress Elizabeth Keckly traveled all the way from slavery to the White House.

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She comforted Mary Todd Lincoln when the first lady's young son Willie died and when her husband, Abraham, was shot. She was Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker and confidant, and she owned her own business at a time when few women did—especially if they were former slaves.

But despite her presence at some of the most dramatic moments of American history, Elizabeth Keckly has remained largely hidden behind the scenes. Keckly was "a radical in terms of her entrepreneurial achievements" and "a kind of a genius" as a designer of the intricate gowns of the era, says her biographer Jennifer Fleischner, author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly. And, as part of the first generation of African-Americans to enter the middle class, she served as a role model for a new kind of American success story—up from slavery—in post-Civil War America.

Self-reliant. Keckly was born in Virginia in 1818, the daughter of a slave mother and the plantation owner, Col. Armistead Burwell. Keckly and her mother were considered "privileged" slaves, assigned to household work rather than hard labor in the fields. As such, Keckly learned how to read and write and, from her mother, how to sew. But as a slave, she was property nonetheless. Keckly was sent, lent, and bequeathed to various Burwell relatives, first in rural North Carolina (where she was sexually abused and had a son, George), then to Petersburg, Va., and finally to St. Louis, Mo. That is where her skill and talent as a dressmaker came together with her determination to be free. Rather than risk capture attempting to escape, the self-reliant Keckly decided she would buy her freedom. In Petersburg and St. Louis, Fleischner explains, Keckly had been encouraged by the example of free blacks working and making money for themselves. By contrast, as a slave hired out by her owner to sew dresses for the wealthy white women of St. Louis, Keckly didn't get any income. Keckly bided her time and cultivated her craft—and her connections—while she developed a reputation for high-level work, honesty, and discretion. She drew on this network for loans to buy her freedom for herself and her son in November 1855. The price tag: $1,200.

Pointedly, Keckly did not buy the freedom of her husband, James Keckly, a fugitive slave. They separated, and in 1860, Elizabeth moved to Washington, D.C.

It was there, using referrals from her St. Louis circle, that Keckly quickly made a name for herself as a modiste-a custom dressmaker, much like the couturiers of today. One of her first clients was Mrs. Robert E. Lee. And Mrs. Jefferson Davis was so taken with Keckly's work that, as secession loomed, she invited Keckly to go south with the Davis family, promising, "I will take care of you." Keckly declined. "I preferred to cast my lot among the people of the North," she wrote.

Through another one of her clients, Keckly made the acquaintance of Mrs. Lincoln, newly arrived from Illinois and eager to impress Washington society. By the summer of 1861 Keckly had made by her estimate "15 or 16" dresses for the first lady, while also working for the widow of Stephen Douglas and the wives of several of Lincoln's cabinet members. With her business flourishing, Keckly opened a workshop and hired seamstresses to assist her.

But Mrs. Lincoln increasingly took up more of her time. From the start, Lincoln "recognized Keckly's gifts, calling her 'a remarkable woman,'" says Fleisch ner. "She respected her judgment and turned to her for advice beyond fashion," including protocol for White House parties and, as time went on, with help trying to resolve Mrs. Lincoln's financial debts. Keckly also assisted Lincoln with domestic details, attending to the first lady when she was overcome by one of her headaches.

Losses in both women's lives further tightened their bond. On Aug. 10, 1861, Keckly's son, George, age 21, died in battle, having left Wilberforce University to fight as a Union soldier (he enlisted as a white soldier because blacks were not yet permitted to serve). The following February, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever. Keckly had watched over him in his final days, and the inconsolable Mrs. Lincoln became even more dependent on her.