Williams: From slavery to White House, “extraordinary lady” receives overdue honor
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a former slave and abolitionist
MICHAEL PAUL WILLIAMS
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She was whipped as an enslaved 4-year-old, purchased freedom for herself and her son and became an in-demand seamstress to the fashionable and powerful.
This remarkable woman, a Virginia native, helped found a relief organization for newly freed slaves, became a confidante to first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and penned a memoir, “Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” that proved too candid for comfort.
No wonder localities are now eager to claim Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, who will be honored Sunday with a state historical marker near her 1818 birthplace in Dinwiddie County.
“It’s past due that she gets her recognition,” said Betty Bowen, director of the Dinwiddie County Historical Society.
She recalled visiting Hillsborough, N.C., where Keckley spent her teenage years.
“They even had a road marker for her. I said, ‘Uh-uh. She was born in Dinwiddie County, honey.’”
Elvatrice Belsches, a historian from Henrico County, became intrigued by Keckley’s life while employed as an in-studio researcher for Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” She yearned to do a documentary on the woman whose name is often spelled “Keckley” (including on the highway marker), but who, according to Belsches, signed her documents as “Keckly.”
Keckley was more than a seamstress and confidante to Mary Lincoln, she said. “She was a modiste or dress designer of the highest order, whose clients included the wives and families of the most powerful leaders in government,” including Mrs. Lincoln, Mary Anna Custis Lee and Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis.
“Varina Davis was so enamored with Mrs. Keckley that she invited her to move back to the South with the Davis family,” Belsches said. “She spoke in fact of the upcoming war with Keckley.”
To mitigate the suffering of the newly freed blacks who escaped or attached themselves to Union soldiers in contraband camps, she was among the founders of the Contraband Relief Association, and was elected its first president, Belsches said.
Her memoir is cited by virtually every Lincoln scholar who writes about the president, but she was not an official member of the White House staff as many believe, Belsches said. She had her own suite of rooms at a Washington boarding house where she also conducted her dressmaking business.
“She was truly an extraordinary lady whose legacy is truly one for the ages,” Belsches said.
Jennifer Loux, highway marker program historian and coordinator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said the marker was initially approved in 2008 and sent back to the state Board of Historic Resources for revisions in 2011.
“(Bowen) contacted me in July and said she’d found an appropriate site by looking at 1815 tax records in Dinwiddie County,” said Loux, who confirmed that finding at the Library of Virginia.
The manufacturing costs for the sign were covered by a federal transportation grant through the Department of Historic Resources. “We want local buy in and local historians to go over text to make sure it’s accurate, so they have influence.”
Bowen learned that Keckley was born along Sappony Creek on the 1,000-acre farm of Armistead Burwell, who, as Keckley learned from her dying mother, was Keckley’s biological father.
Sunday’s dedication ceremony will take place 6 miles from her birthplace at the historic county courthouse, where the speakers will include Bowen; Belsches; filmmaker Tim Reid, whose New Millennium Studios brought Belsches on board to write a script and conduct research for a Keckley documentary; and Lauranett Lee of the Virginia Historical Society and a member of the board that reviewed the marker application.
Bowen had been searching for three years for her birthplace and found it about six months ago. “I was so elated, absolutely elated, when I found that.”
She said that according to the memoir, the 4-year-old Keckley received her first whipping for accidentally tipping over the cradle of the baby she was assigned to care for.
“If you the read book, you will find she was whipped many times,” Bowen said. She was repeatedly raped by a prominent man in her North Carolina community, resulting in her only child.
In 1855, Keckley purchased her freedom, with the help of some of her dress-buying clients. Her son, passing as white, enlisted in the Union army and died in the Civil War six years later. She relocated to Baltimore and Washington before writing her 1868 memoir, which as the historical marker notes, “met with criticism from Mrs. Lincoln for its candor” — even though, as Bowen notes, it was intended by Keckley to help her friend, who had fallen on hard times.
In the 1890s, Keckley taught in the Domestic Arts Department at Wilberforce University, but herself would fall on hard times. She died destitute in 1907.
That narratives like Keckley’s are coming to light is an encouraging sign of our willingness to reveal what took place, in all its complexity, behind the scenes of American history. Hers is an extraordinary life that deserves a spotlight.