Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818-1907) was an African American seamstress, dressmaker, and activist who is best known for her association with Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Keckley was born into slavery in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, but eventually gained her freedom and became a prominent figure in Washington, D.C. Keckley’s skills as a seamstress and dressmaker brought her success, and she gained a reputation for her craftsmanship and attention to detail. She established her own dressmaking business in Washington, D.C., and catered to wealthy and influential clients, including politicians’ wives and socialites.
In 1861, Keckley was hired as Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal modiste (dressmaker) and confidante. She created numerous elegant dresses for Mrs. Lincoln and became a trusted friend and advisor. Keckley’s close relationship with the First Lady gave her unique insights into the political and personal struggles faced by the Lincolns during the Civil War.
Keckley used her position and influence to advocate for the welfare of formerly enslaved African Americans and to support relief efforts for freed slaves and soldiers. She organized fundraising events and founded the Contraband Relief Association to provide assistance to African American refugees and recently freed slaves in Washington, D.C.
In 1868, Keckley published her memoir, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House,” which detailed her life in slavery and her experiences working for the Lincolns. The book provided a unique perspective on the personal and political lives of the Lincolns and shed light on the experiences of African Americans during that era. While Keckley’s memoir initially received mixed reviews and faced criticism from some who questioned her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, it remains an important historical document. It provides valuable insights into the lives of African Americans during slavery and their struggles for freedom and equality.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley’s life and work exemplify the resilience and strength of African American women during a time of great adversity. Her skills as a dressmaker brought her financial independence, and her activism and memoir contributed to the historical record and shed light on the experiences of African Americans during a pivotal period in American history.