Elizabeth Keckley ~ Black History's Beautiful Thread

Elizabeth Keckley : The thread between knowledge, opportunity and freedom

A story of an African American woman, daughter of her own slave master, soon to become the seamstress and friend of Mary Todd Lincoln, the country’s 19th first lady by way of a needle and thread.

February 1818, Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in Dinwiddie, VA. Elizabeth’s mother had been exposed to a very rare aspect of life to which many Blacks during that time had never been exposed: knowing how to read. Elizabeth encountered much despair emotionally, physically and mentally as a youth. She didn’t know her real father was her master until the death of her mother, and seeing her step-father being snatched from her life at a young age due to his master’s uprooting and moving far away in addition to sexual and mental abuse, she had endured much heartache and pain at the early stages of her life. It is still unknown when and where exactly Keckley learned her craft of sewing, but at the age of 24 she became a care-taker and a sewer for the family with which her and her mother Agnes had lived.

At the age of 29, she had moved to St. Louis where much of her success as a dressmaker would flourish. She began to network with free blacks and gain clients from coteries of upper class white women who loved the dresses she had created. She’d decided she would take her talents elsewhere but could not do so until she had enough money to buy her freedom. In 1855, Keckley had received enough money from the sales of her dresses that she was able to purchase her and her son’s freedom, enroll him into Wilberforce University and move to Baltimore, MD. After spending only months in Baltimore, Keckley decided she would travel to Washington D.C. where she would expand her networking and increase her clientele. Much of the demand for Elizabeth Keckley’s dresses came by word-of-mouth referrals from many of Washington’s well-to-do women of the era. Keckley soon found herself to be the only seamstress and personal dresser for Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, the 19th first lady of the United States. Her success by association greatly enhanced her social status as she would soon be of a very elite and well-known group within the black community at that time. She used this success as a means for survival, upward advancement and an opportunity to give back to the less fortunate as she would establish the Contraband Relief Association that help disadvantaged black people.

Keckley’s relationship with Mrs. Lincoln would have it’s ups and downs and with the release of Keckley’s book, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House the latter part of her life would bring more despair than elation and a very distancing to almost non-existent relationship with her once upon a time best friend she once had in Mrs. Lincoln. Nevertheless, Keckley continued to design and sew. She became head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University in 1892 and created a dress exhibit at the Chicago’s World Fair. Keckley spent the last years of her life back in Washington D.C. as a resident of the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children where she would later pass away in 1907. Her work is now located at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum and Kent State’s University Costume Department Museum.  Elizabeth Keckley was not only a trailblazer for many seamstresses to follow but was yet another contribution to the American society that is often times overlooked. Ms. Keckley, this February I honor and recognize your talent, skills and greatness and with that, I thank you!
*Post also available at Mochacity.com

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