Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, November 13, 2015

Elizabeth Keckley, "Thirty Years a Slave"

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (manumission from slavery, 13 November 1855)


Born as a slave in Virginia some time between 1818 and 1824, Elizabeth Hobbs was later to report that, while her mother lay dying, she had revealed that her owner, the planter Armistead Burwell, was Elizabeth's father. 

As Elizabeth wrote later in her autobiography, she was put to work at the age of four, serving as a nursemaid for Burwell and his wife Mary's daughter, another Elizabeth, whom she described as "a sweet, black-eyed baby, my earliest and fondest pet." 

She was seven years old when she first saw a slave being sold. As she would later describe the scene, 
master had just purchased his hogs for the winter, for which he was unable to pay in full. To escape from his embarrassment it was necessary to sell one of the slaves. Little Joe, the son of the cook, was selected as the victim. His mother was ordered to dress him up in his Sunday clothes, and send him to the house. He came in with a bright face, was placed in the scales, and was sold, like the hogs, at so much per pound. His mother was kept in ignorance of the transaction, but her suspicions were aroused. When her son started for Petersburgh in the wagon, the truth began to dawn upon her mind, and she pleaded piteously that her boy should not be taken from her; but master quieted her by telling her that he was simply going to town with the wagon, and would be back in the morning.
Morning came, but little Joe did not return to his mother. Morning after morning passed, and the mother went down to the grave without ever seeing her child again. One day she was whipped for grieving for her lost boy. Colonel Burwell never liked to see one of his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this particular way were always punished. Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart. Colonel Burwell at one time owned about seventy slaves, all of which were sold, and in a majority of instances wives were separated from husbands and children from their parents.
When she was fourteen, Elizabeth became one of those children separated from their parents--Burwell sent her to the North Carolina home of one of his sons, aPresbyterian minister, whose wife treated the girl horribly, eventually enlisting the help of a vicious neighbor (a schoolmaster and member of Burwell's church) who beat her mercilessly in order to subdue her "stubborn pride." 

She was also "persecuted for four years" by Alexander Kirkland--in other words, she was raped repeatedly; in 1839 she gave birth to a son, whom she named George. 

At this point she was sent to another Burwell, this time a daughter, Anne Burwell Garland. Suffering deep financial difficulties, the Garlands sold off many slaves, but they retained Elizabeth; the entire family, including Elizabeth, relocated to St. Louis--there, her work as a dressmaker supported the entire household of seventeen for two years. 

At some point, Elizabeth negotiated a price for the freedom for herself and her child--$1,200. Then she set about earning it. Along the way, she married James Keckley, who claimed to be free but was not, adding one more to the number of people her work needed to support.

Elizabeth Keckley's customers raised the money for her, the deed of manumission (or should we call it the deed of sale?) dated 13 November 1855 and signed by Anne Burwell Garland:
Know all men that I, Anne P. Garland, of the County and City of St. Louis, State of Missouri, for and in consideration of the sum of $1200, to me in band paid this day in cash, hereby emancipate my negro woman Lizzie, and her son George; the said Lizzie is known in St. Louis as the wife of James, who is called James Keckley; is of light complexion, about 37 years of age, by trade a dress-maker, and called by those who know her Garland's Lizzie. The said boy, George, is the only child of Lizzie, is about 16 years of age, and is almost white, and called by those who know him Garland's George.
The most well-known events in Elizabeth Keckley's life began in 1861, when she was hired as a dressmaker by Mary Todd Lincoln. The two became friends and confidantes--Keckley not only made Lincoln's dresses, she became an intimate member of the household. After Lincoln's assassination, Keckley traveled with Mary Todd Lincoln back to Chicago, then returned to reopen her dressmaking business in Washington D.C.

Mary Todd Lincoln's gown, made in 1861-62,
believed to be Elizabeth Keckley's work,
National Museum of American History
Once she learned of Mary Todd Lincoln's poverty, Elizabeth Keckley tried to help her, most famously with a proposed sale of Mrs. Lincoln's clothing, jewelry, and effects--the sale caused a public scandal, derided as "vulgar." The "sale" did not succeed. Keckley raised money in the black community to aid Mrs. Lincoln.

In 1868, Keckley published her autobiography, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, claiming as she did so that her motivations were to defend the former First Lady from criticism. The Lincoln family took offense. Mary Todd and Elizabeth never met again.

In her history of the relationship between the two women, Jennifer Fleischner has this to say about the reaction to Keckley's publication:
Lizzy's intentions . . . would thereafter be lost in history. At the age of fifty, she had violated Victorian codes not only of friendship and privacy, but of race, gender, and class. Not surprisingly, the newspapers that attacked Mary Lincoln in the fall, in the spring now leapt to her defense... The social threat represented by this black woman's agency also provoked other readers, and someone produced an ugly and viciously racist parody called Behind the Seams; by a Nigger Woman who Took Work in from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Davis and Signed with an "X," the Mark of "Betsey Kickley (Nigger), denoting its supposed author's illiteracy.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley would continue to work as a dressmaker, though she was no longer popular with a white clientele, and as she aged, her financial status deteriorated. In 1890, when she was around seventy years old, she was forced to sell some of her Lincoln memorabilia, items she had had for more than thirty years. 

In 1892, still active, she was offered a faculty position at Wilberforce University, a black university founded in 1856--and so she moved to Ohio to serve as chair of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts. 

But after she suffered a stroke just a year after taking up this position, she returned to Washington D.C. Little is known about her later years, but she was living in a small room in the basement of the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, an institution descended from the Contraband Relief Association Keckley had founded in 1862, with help from the Lincolns, in order to provide food, clothing, and support for freed slaves and sick and wounded soldiers.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley died in May 1907. The exact date is unknown. 

Elizabeth Keckley's autobiography is available online at various sites, including both Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. 

For Fleishner's Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between the First Lady and a Former Slave, click here.

For a very interesting essay on Keckley as a dressmaker, I recommend the Smithsonian essay/interview by Emily Spivak, which you can access by clicking here.