From Slavery to Freedom via Entrepreneurship

Portrait of Keckley from her book, Behind the ScenesOn October 19, 2014 at Dinwiddie Court House, a Virginia historical marker was dedicated to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (also spelled Keckly). Elizabeth, or ‘Lizzy’ Keckley was born near Petersburg and was a slave on the Burwell Plantation. Her father was Armistead Burwell, the master of the plantation and her mother was a slave woman. She took the name of her slave father George Hobbs. Elizabeth Keckley had a son, George Keckley, who was killed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, during the first year of the Civil War. As the offspring of a white father, Alexander Kirkland, who had raped his mother, George Keckley passed as white and was thus able to enlist in the Union army at a time of the war when blacks were prohibited from doing so.

 

Title Page of Behind The Scenes, 1868

Title Page of Behind The Scenes, 1868

The trajectory of Mrs. Keckley’s life was amazing. A consummate dressmaker, she lived in North Carolina and Virginia working for various members of the extended Burwell family. She moved to St. Louis where she married James Keckley and bought her freedom and that of her son. In 1860, she was living in Washington, D.C., making clothes for the Washington elite, including Mary Custis Lee and Varina Howell Davis. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Mrs. Keckley became not only the First Lady’s dressmaker but also her best friend. Elizabeth Keckley had numerous people working for her and was quite successful.

In 1868, she published her memoir: Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1868.  Rare Book E457.15 .K26 1868

Swem Library’s Special Collections has a first edition of the memoir which is also available as an ebook, but more remarkably, owns a letter written by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley in 1842 while she was still a Burwell slave. It may be read at http://hdl.handle.net/10288/16195.

Lizzy (Elizabeth Keckley), Mansfield, to Fanny Burwell, Gloucester C. H., April 25, 1842. Burwell-Catlett Papers (Mss.65 B95), 1794-1887, Box 1, Folder 14.

First page of letter. Lizzy (Elizabeth Keckley), Mansfield, to Fanny Burwell, Gloucester C. H., April 25, 1842. Burwell-Catlett Papers (Mss.65 B95), 1794-1887, Box 1, Folder 14.

 

See also Jennifer Fleischner, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between a First Lady and a Former Slave. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.  E457.25 .L55 2003.

 

 

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