Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley (1818–1907) from Behind the Scenes.... New York: G. W. Carlton, 1868. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Born as a slave in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, Elizabeth Keckley (1818–1907) gained renown as a seamstress, author, and philanthropist. Drawing upon her earnings as a seamstress, Keckley (sometimes "Keckly ") was able to purchase her freedom from slavery in 1855. After her arrival in Washington, D.C., in 1860, her skills as a dressmaker quickly resulted in commissions from several of the city's leading women, including Varina Davis, the wife Jefferson Davis. On March 5, 1861, the day following the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president, Mary Todd Lincoln hired Elizabeth Keckley as her personal seamstress. This position and her close relationship with the first lady provided Keckley with a unique perspective on domestic life within the Lincoln White House and life in the U.S. capital city. Concerned with the welfare of recently freed slaves who flooded into Washington during the Civil War, in 1862 Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association, which offered food, clothing, and shelter to the most destitute segments of the African American population. Keckley was able to recruit support for the association from figures such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and President and Mrs. Lincoln. Following the war, Elizabeth Keckley published her memoir Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868). Though the book was intended to offer a sympathetic view of Mary Todd Lincoln, it was not well received because of a widespread belief that it violated the privacy of the former first lady.

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