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PHOTO ESSAY

Black Women Entrepreneurs

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Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley was Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and friend during Abraham Lincoln's presidency; the friendship ended when Keckley's frank memoir, which revealed some confidential details about the Lincolns, was published in 1868. By permission of University of North Carolina.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818–1907) was born a slave in Dinwiddle, Virginia. Separated from her family and frequently sold, as a teenager in North Carolina she was raped by her white owner and gave birth to a son. Later taken to St. Louis, she married a man named James Keckley but they separated when she learned that he had lied to her about being a free man. Despite this terrible background, Keckley displayed a remarkable skill for needlework and became an extremely valuable asset for her owners, who hired her out to make dresses for the wealthy women of St. Louis. Her work was so well received that in time a group of her wealthiest customers joined together to loan Keckley the 1200 dollars necessary to buy her freedom and that of her son. By working hard and capitalizing on her growing reputation as a dressmaker, she was able to pay off the loan within a year. In 1860 Keckley opened a booming business in Washington, D.C., where she made dresses for Varina Davis, wife of the future Confederate President, and eventually for Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckly became Mary Todd Lincoln's personal designer, traveling companion, and confidant, eventually authoring a book about her experiences in the Lincoln White House. Although she fell on hard times later in life, Keckley's rise from slavery to the White House is a testimony to her talent and enterprising spirit.

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