Sunday, January 20, 2013

176: The Self-Empowered Woman: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to a woman who broke lots of barriers long before Americans were ready to accept racial or sexual emancipation. If you've seen the movie Lincoln, you might be familiar with the name Elizabeth Keckley, who was the dressmaker (or "modiste") for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Born in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia, Keckley was the daughter of a house slave (Agnes, known as Aggy) owned by Mary and Armistead Burwell. He had been a colonel in the War of 1812, and was a successful planter; he was also Elizabeth's father.

When Elizabeth was a young child, Agnes was later permitted to marry a literate slave (George Pleasant Hobbs) who worked at the home of a neighboring family. But when the neighbor decided to move far away, Hobbs was separated from his wife and stepdaughter ( 1: No Paternal Safety Net ).

Keckley lived in the Burwell's home along with her mother, and began to tackle chores when she was only four years old. By the time she was fourteen years old she was sent "on loan" to the home of the Burwell's eldest married son who lived in North Carolina. His wife intensely disliked Elizabeth, and spent four years making her life as difficult as possible (12: Hard Times).

When she was 18, Margaret Burwell asked a neighbor to beat out Elizabeth's "stubborn pride." The  teenager was ordered to undress, but angrily refused, and was then tied up and beat until her back bled. This happened several times until the neighbor realized that "it would be a sin" to beat her anymore, and actually asked for her forgiveness (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

When she was 20, she was raped by a local prominent white man and gave birth to a son. They were sent back to Virginia to live with the Burwell's married daughter, Ann Burwell Garland, and her husband. The family was always short of money, and Keckley's sewing helped support them.

In 1847, the Garlands moved to St. Louis and took Elizabeth, her son, as well as mother with them. Spending twelve years in St. Louis introduced Elizabeth to many free black people, and also gave her a chance to become a dressmaker for a variety of women in the white community. Lizzie LeBourgeois became her patroness, and worked hard to help Elizabeth find new clients and earn her freedom (4: Supportive Someone). She worked for two years to persuade Mr. Garland to let her buy her freedom, and in 1852 he agreed to release Elizabeth and her son if she could raise $1,200.

In November of 1855, she had earned enough money to pay for both her freedom and her son's (8: Turning No Into Yes). At this point she began to make plans to leave St. Louis (14: Selective Disassociation), and to divorce her husband (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

She moved to Baltimore, Maryland and decided to open a school to teach "young colored women" her way of cutting fabric and fitting dresses, but it was a failure (11: Risk Addiction). She barely had enough money left to get to Washington, D.C., where she thought she would find more work. In the mid-1860's she had to buy a license as a free black woman to stay in the city for more than 30 days.

Once Elizabeth had her license work began flowing in, especially from society women; she met Mary Todd Lincoln on March 4th, 1861, the day of her husbands first inauguration. Soon she began to help Mrs. Lincoln with receptions and social events, and for six years she spent a great deal of time with the First Family. Mary Todd Lincoln (for whom Elizabeth once made sixteen dresses in sixteen weeks) was known to be difficult, but observers noted that Keckley was "the only person in Washington who could get along with Mrs. Lincoln."

In 1862, Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association, which was designed food, shelter, clothing and emotional support to recently freed slaves and/or sick and wounded soldiers.  She devoted countless hours to the success to the CRA (7: Magnificent Obsession).

After the President was assassinated, Mrs. Lincoln insisted that Keckley move to Chicago with her. Keckley's son had died as a Union soldier in the Civil War, and Mrs. Lincoln had lost both her son, Willie, and her husband.

In 1868, Elizabeth published Behind the Scenes, a book designed to help readers better understand Mrs. Lincoln's decision to sell her husband's clothes. Unfortunately, many people felt the book was a betrayal because Keckley was both and employee and a friend who should not have revealed what went on in the White House. At the age of 50, Keckley became overwhelmed by all the negative publicity that her had book generated (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

She struggled (both personally and professionally) for the rest of her life, and died in May 1907. A photograph of her estranged friend, Mary Todd Lincoln, was always displayed wherever she lived, and the dress she'd made for the First Lady to wear at her husband's second inauguration ceremony and reception is at the Smithsonian American History Museum. Several books have been written about Elizabeth Keckley, and in Steven Spielberg's movie she is portrayed by Gloria Reuben.

Looking forward to your comments...

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