Elizabeth Keckly. From Dinwiddie to the White House

Elizabeth Keckly

From Dinwiddie to the White House

Elizabeth Keckly

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Elizabeth Keckly was born into slavery as Elizabeth Hobbs in 1818 in Dinwiddie County to Agnes (“Aggy”) Hobbs, who had taken the last name of her enslaved husband, George Hobbs. Aggy was a slave in the household of Armistead and Mary Burwell, and Lizzie, as she was called, later learned from her mother that Armistead Burwell was her biological father. George Hobbs, who lived on an adjoining farm, subsequently moved away with his owners, and so the members of the family were separated.

Dinwiddie County Marker


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Burwell, according to Elizabeth Keckly, was “somewhat unsettled in his business affairs,” and he moved several times in an attempt to improve his and his family’s lot. In 1822 he and his household moved to Prince Edward County, where he filled the position of steward at Hampden-Sidney College, responsible for providing meals and firewood to the students for a monthly fee.

H-S Old College

Old College

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Burwell’s sons attended the College. There Mrs. Burwell bore a daughter, and according to Elizabeth Keckly, “to take care of this baby was my first duty” at the age of four. One day when she was “most industriously” rocking the cradle, the baby fell to the floor. In her confusion, she grabbed the fire-shovel, and as she attempted to scoop up the baby, Mrs. Burwell entered the room, told her to leave the baby alone, and ordered that she be lashed, a lashing “not administered with a light hand.” In 1830, facing a declining student population, Burwell and the household moved to Boydton.

Hugh Garland

Hugh Garland

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Hugh A. Garland was born in 1805 in Nelson County, and after graduating from Hampden-Sidney College, became professor of Greek for a brief period. While at the College, he married Anne P. Burwell, the eldest daughter of Armistead Burwell.

Leaving Hampden-Sidney, Garland studied law at the University of Virginia for a year before joining his wife’s family in Boydton, where he set up his practice in 1831.

Garland represented the Mecklenburg district in the Virginia State Legislature in 1833-38 and was elected Clerk of the House of Representatives in the 26th Congress. In 1840 he retired to the country and devoted himself to literary studies and business enterprises.

At fourteen Lizzie was sent to live with the eldest Burwell son, Robert, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Margaret Anna Robertson, in Chesterfield County, and at eighteen she moved with them to Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Hillsborough Marker

The years spent with the younger Burwells were not happy ones as Anna, according to Elizabeth Keckly, “was morbidly sensitive, and imagined that I regarded her with contemptuous feelings because she was of poor parentage.” Anna even enlisted a neighbor, Mr. Bingham, to beat the girl in an effort to crush what Anna perceived as Lizzie’s “stubborn pride.” After additional beatings, Bingham, faced with Lizzie’s refusal to react in the way he expected and with his own dawning sense of decency, relented and swore never to beat her again. Unfortunately, Robert Burwell took up the beatings, but he, too, ultimately, succumbed to her stoic reaction and ceased the beatings.

While Lizzie was in Hillsborough, a white neighbor, Alexander M. Kirkland, forced her into a sexual relationship, which lasted four years and resulted in the birth of her only child, a son, whom she named George after her enslaved father. The younger George, however, later took the last name of his biological father rather than Hobbs.

Hugh Garland later moved with his family to Mansfield, a farm in Dinwiddie County just outside Petersburg.



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In 1842, after the death of Armistead Burwell, his widow and her slaves went to live with her daughter Anne and son-in-law Hugh A. Garland at Mansfield, and Lizzie joined them.

While a number of the slaves were sold because of Garland’s precarious finances, Aggy and Lizzie stayed with the family. Garland, however, faced with major debts, was forced to leave Mansfield in 1844, and he and the household moved to rental quarters in Petersburg, above what is now the Trading Post on Sycamore St., the front of which was altered in 1913,

The Trading Post

Trading Post

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In the city he was among the lecturers sponsored by the Petersburg Lyceum in the Petersburg Classical Institute—a school attended by the future Hampden-Sidney College President Richard McIlwaine—and was among those who either read the Declaration of Independence or delivered an oration at a July 4 celebration. In addition, he delivered a eulogy for President Andrew Jackson on July 12, 1845. He also commanded a company of Petersburg citizens in the Mexican War, but the men did not participate in any pitched battle.

Life with the Garlands was happier for Lizzie, and she had fond memories of the family. Jennifer Fleischner, the author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, writes “[I]f Lizzy ever experienced something like happiness as a slave, it was with the Garlands.”

However, Garland was never able to recover from financial difficulties, and all of his possessions not in Petersburg and his slaves were put up as collateral against his debts. Before Christmas of 1846 he set out for St. Louis, and the household followed nine months later.

Garland set up a small law practice, but when the family arrived, they found that he was very poor. In spite of his financial problems—and the family’s residence in a less-than-fashionable neighborhood—his family background enabled him to enter St. Louis society, and his law practice handling property disputes improved. In 1852 Garland delivered five lectures on “Protestantism and Government.” In a New York Times item on the controversy as to whether “Protestantism is incompatible with civilization and good government,” Garland, the defender of Protestantism, is described as “of multifarious reputation. . . . Mr. Garland is supposed to have acquired the requisite facility in debating, while Clerk of the House of Representatives. Doubtless his divinity is of the same school.”

He also continued his literary efforts, writing a Life of John Randolph in two volumes in 1850, which went through several editions, and which, according to Alexander Nicolas DeMenil in The Literature of the Louisiana Territory, was “one of the best—and probably the most accurate—of the many” biographies of Randolph. He also wrote Opochancanough. The Massacre of Jamestown, Virginia, 1622. A Tragedy in Five Acts in 1853, a “failure,” according to DeMenil, who writes, “Mr. Garland was a scholar, but he was not a poet”; and a Life of Thomas Jefferson, which was in press at the time of his death in 1854 and was “inferior to” the Randolph biography, according to DeMenil.

In 1850 Hugh A. Garland was retained, with his law partner, Lyman D. Norris, by Mrs. Irene Emerson and her brother, John F.A. Sanford, to appeal a decision of the Circuit Court of St. Louis County that Dred Scott was free.

Dred Scott

Dred Scott

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Dred Scott’s claim to freedom was based on the fact that, starting in 1833, he had lived in “a state designated as ‘free’ under the 1820 Missouri Compromise” (“Scott v. Sandford.”) with his St. Louis owner, Dr. John Emerson, during the seven years that the latter served as an assistant surgeon in the United States Army in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory. On the death of Dr. Emerson in 1843, Scott became the property of his widow, and, after failing to buy his freedom, he brought suit for unlawful imprisonment and assault against her and John F.A. Sanford, her brother and the executor of Dr. Emerson’s estate.

The first ruling in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County in 1847 found that Scott was still a slave because one of African descent could not be considered an American citizen. The second ruling in 1850 was that he had been free since 1833. In 1850 Garland and Norris replaced another attorney in representing Sanford, who had taken over Mrs. Emerson’s affairs, in filing the appeal concerning Scott’s status to the Missouri Supreme Court. A divided court in March of 1852 declared that Scott was still a slave. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but Garland died before it was argued there in 1856, with the ruling coming in 1857.

In St. Louis Lizzie was able to turn her skill in sewing into a profitable enterprise among the well-to-do white women in the city. She also met James Keckly, who claimed to be a free man, and when he asked her to marry him, she replied that she would not until she and her son were free. With the prospect of marriage to a free man, and undoubtedly with thoughts of business as a freedwoman inspired by contact with the large free population in Petersburg and St. Louis, including many black women who owned property, she asked Hugh Garland to be allowed to buy her and her son’s freedom. At first he refused, offering her a quarter to take the ferry to the free state of Illinois. However, she felt insulted by the offer, and if she had taken him up on it, she would have been considered a fugitive slave, subject to seizure by anyone who asked to see proof that she was a free woman.

After being approached again, he agreed and set a price of $1,200. The sum set by Garland, however, was prohibitively high, especially since Lizzie had to give part of her earnings to Garland, effectively supporting the household for a while. With the promise of eventual freedom, Lizzie agreed to marry James Keckly, probably in 1852.

After Garland’s death on October 14, 1854, Lizzie asked his widow to honor his promise and considered going to New York to appeal for funds from sympathetic citizens of that city. However, local St. Louis patrons came through with the money, and after purchasing her and her son’s freedom in 1855, Lizzie remained in the city until she had paid the money back.

With her business flourishing, Lizzie enrolled her son in Wilberforce University. She departed St. Louis for Baltimore in 1860, leaving behind James Keckly, whom she had married and who turned out to have lied about being free; Lizzie also discovered that he was an alcoholic. In Baltimore she attempted to teach the cutting and fitting of dresses to young black women, but perhaps because of the racial climate in the city and the restrictive laws regulating the free black population, her efforts proved unsuccessful, and she moved to Washington, D.C.

When she found that she did not have the money to purchase a license enabling her to remain in the city, a patron importuned the city’s mayor to grant the license free of charge. Mrs. Keckly then set about making dresses for a number of prominent women in the city, including the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

Mrs. Davis asked her to go south with her if there was a war, but Mrs. Keckly declined. When they parted, she writes that she half promised to join Mrs. Davis in the south, “if further deliberation should induce me to change my views.”

At a time when she faced a number of bills, she was introduced to the wife of Robert E. Lee, whom she calls “Mrs. Captain Lee,” who needed a dress for a dinner party in honor of the Prince of Wales. The result was that Mrs. Keckly received many orders that relieved her concerns about bills.

At the instigation of Margaret McLean (“Mrs. Captain McLean”) of Maryland, Lizzie was introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln, who needed a dress for the reception after her husband’s inauguration, having spilled coffee on the one she had intended to wear. After an interview, along with several others being considered for the position, Lizzie was selected as Mrs. Lincoln’s personal modiste.

Mary Todd Lincoln in Keckly dress

Mary Todd Lincoln in Keckly Dress

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Mrs. Lincoln could be a very difficult person, but Mrs. Keckly was able to deal with her, possibly as a result of facing many trying circumstances during her years of enslavement. Their friendship grew over the years, and Lizzie maintained a strong loyalty to Mary that survived the White House years. Mrs. Lincoln often attended affairs in Lizzie’s creations and posed for portraits wearing them.

Both benefited from the attention, Mrs. Lincoln in celebrity and Madam Keckly, as she came to be known, in a certain renown in the black community.

Madam Keckly

Elizabeth Keckly

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With the beginning of the war, Elizabeth Keckly’s son George, who had taken the last name of his biological father, Kirkland, enlisted in the Union forces before the War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops, possibly accepted as white because of his fair complexion, but he was killed in action early in the war.

George Kirkland

George Kirkland

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Later, after the Bureau of Colored Troops had been established, Lizzie applied for a pension that would be awarded to a widow whose only son was killed in battle. In her effort to prove that her son was black, she claimed that she and Alexander Kirkland had married, and after his death, she had married a black man, James Keckly. The effort was successful, and she received the pension for the rest of her life.

When Mary Todd Lincoln accompanied her husband to City Point, Richmond, and Petersburg on April 6-7, 1865, his second visit after the fall of Petersburg and Richmond, the President’s wife asked Madam Keckly to join the group. According to her autobiography, Lizzie told Mrs. Lincoln, “I would regard it as a privilege to go with her, as City Point was near Petersburg, my old home.”

She adds, “A birthplace is always dear, no matter under what circumstances you were born, since it revives in memory the golden hours of childhood, free from philosophy, and the warm kiss of a mother.”

At the Capitol in Richmond she sat the chair sometimes used by Jefferson Davis, as well as that of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens.

When they went to Petersburg, according to her memoir, “I wandered off by myself in search of those whom I had known in other days.” The war had brought many changes from the time she had lived in the city, and she found only a few of her old friends.

As she wrote, “The scenes suggested painful memories, and I was not sorry to turn my back again upon the city.” Later in the book, however, she calls the entire trip “one of the most delightful of my life,” one she remembered “with feelings of genuine pleasure.”

As freed slaves flocked to Maryland and Washington after the war, Lizzie established a group to aid disadvantaged black people, the Contraband Relief Association, and among those who contributed to the effort were the Lincolns.

She writes glowingly of President Lincoln, who called her “Madam Elizabeth,” describing him as “generous by nature,” “His soul was too great for narrow, selfish views of partisanship.”

After the President’s assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln turned to Lizzie Keckly for solace and asked her to accompany her to Chicago, where the former First Lady would establish a new life. Because of her thriving business in Washington, Lizzie stayed in Chicago only about three weeks. Her business in Washington resulted in her opening a second shop. Mrs. Lincoln wrote frequent letters to maintain contact with her friend. In fact, Mrs. Lincoln, after the assassination of the President, said to her, as Mrs. Keckly recounts, “Lizabeth, you are my best and kindest friend, and I love you as my best friend,” and in an 1867 letter Mrs. Lincoln called Mrs. Keckly “my best living friend.”

Having amassed a large debt during her years in the White House, Mrs. Lincoln decided to go to New York to arrange for the sale of whatever articles of value she had, and she asked Lizzie to accompany her.

Sale of Clothes

Sale of Clothes

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The effort was not entirely successful, and there was criticism directed at Mrs. Lincoln that Mrs. Keckly attempted to counter through interviews with sympathetic newspapers and letters to friends in the black community.

A rift in the two women’s relationship resulted when Lizzie gave a number of items from her White House years to Wilberforce University after a fire at the school. Mrs. Lincoln had expected the items to be included in a tour of Europe.

Wilberforce University

Wilberforce University

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Mrs. Keckly wrote a memoir in 1868 at least in part as an attempt to defend Mrs. Lincoln, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Whatever its intentions, however, the book caused a scandal. The book was not received as Mrs. Keckly hoped or expected. There were the usual charges that greeted writings of former enslaved people: The book could not have been written by a former slave; if must have been written by an unidentified man, labeled in one article a “literary hack.” It was variously called “indecent” and “shameless.” One writer attacked her character, calling her “a traitorous eavesdropper and “ignorant and vulgar.”

But most upsetting to Mrs. Keckly was the resentment on the part of Mrs. Lincoln over the book, revealing as it did personal matters involving the Lincolns, private conversations with Lizzie, and letters to her. Mrs. Keckly later said that she had sent the letters to the publisher with the understanding that they would not be published in full and personal references would be removed. The sales were small—with one report asserting that Mrs. Lincoln’s son had copies bought up—and Mrs. Lincoln no longer considered Elizabeth Keckly her friend.

Lizzie’s business also floundered, as her former customers gradually dropped away. In 1872 she sold the Lincoln objects which she had kept, and in the following years she moved often. In 1892 she moved to Ohio, where she had been offered a faculty position as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. She organized a dress exhibition for the Chicago World’s Fair, and by the late 1890s she had moved back to Washington, where she resided in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children. The Contraband Relief Association, which Lizzie had founded, had aided the establishment of the home.

For the rest of her life, Lizzie maintained an affection for Mary Todd Lincoln, who died twenty-five years before Lizzie, and she kept a photograph of Mrs. Lincoln in her room. In May of 1907, Elizabeth Keckly died at the home. A gown made for Mrs. Lincoln by Madam Keckly is in the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution, and a shawl made from leftover scraps of Mrs. Lincoln’s dresses is in the museum of Kent State University’s Costume Department.

Elizabeth Keckly

Elizabeth Keckly

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In Behind the Scenes, Mrs. Keckly writes, “In order to introduce a pleasant chapter of my life, I must take a slight retrospective glance. The “glance” is to the five Garland daughters, whom she viewed with great affection. After Mrs. Garland moved to Vicksburg following the death of Hugh, Lizzie lost contact with the family for a while, but she made two visits, the second after the death of her mother, who had accompanied the Garland family to Vicksburg. She again lost contact after the war broke out.

She goes on to recount a visit from a friend of Mrs. Garland and her daughters, when she received from the friend their address. After writing to the daughters, she received in reply an invitation to visit from Nannie Garland Meem, now living at Rude’s Hill in Virginia. The visit came in August of 1866, a five-week visit which Lizzie describes as “the most delightful weeks of my life.” Maggie Garland later visited Mrs. Keckly in Washington.

Madam Keckly died in 1907 and was buried in Washington’s Columbian Harmony Cemetery. The cemetery was bought by developers in the 1950s, and the remains of those buried there went to National Harmony Memoria Park in Largo, Maryland, and Mrs. Keckly’s remains were placed in an unmarked grave. In 2009 the cemetery’s management located her records and several organizations joined to sponsor a project to place a marker on the grave.


Elizabeth Keckly Marker

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When Steven Spielberg directed the movie Lincoln, the actress Gloria Reuben portrayed Mrs. Keckly, with very little to do except accompany Mrs. Lincoln to the House to observe the discussions on the 13th Amendment.

Gloria Reuben

Gloria Reuben

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None the less, the actress did considerable research on her character. She went to Hampden-Sydney College, where Elizabeth Hobbs had lived when her owner was steward. At the College, Ms. Reuben learned of my interest, and she arranged to come to Petersburg. She met me at the Siege Museum, where I was working, and I took her to the Trading Post, where the Garlands had lived in a second-floor apartment. Ms. Reuben videotaped the front of the building, but unfortunately, we were not allowed to go upstairs, though I had visited the apartment earlier and was told that the woodwork was the same as in the 19th century.

Elizabeth Keckly will be one of the women honored at the Virginia Women’s Monument on Capitol Square.

Prior to her visit to Rude’s Hill to visit the Garland daughters, her “Northern friends” expressed surprise that Lizzie felt affection for those who had kept her in bondage. Lizzie replied:

You forget the past is dear to every one, for to the past belongs that golden period, the days of childhood. The past is a mirror that reflects the chief incidents of my life. To surrender it is to surrender the greatest part of my existence—early impressions, friends, and the graves of my father, my mother and my son. The people are associated with everything that memory holds dear, and so long as memory proves faithful, it is but natural that I should sigh to see them once more.


The principal sources for the life of Elizabeth Keckly are

Elizabeth Keckly, Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), andJennifer Fleischner, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly (New York: Broadway Books, 2003).

By C. Wayne Tucker

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Written by C. Wayne Tucker for The Petersburg Preservation Task Force.

Featured image provided by Petersburg Preservation