She was the dressmaker of Washington D.C., her dresses sophisticated and clean, designed to be of excellent fit, the desire of many. And to clients, she was often more than a dressmaker; she was a dear friend.
Elizabeth Keckley was born enslaved in Virginia in 1818. The only daughter of her enslaved mother, her birth father was the plantation owner. The man Elizabeth considered a father was her mother’s husband, an enslaved man who lived on a plantation nearby. Twice a year, on special holidays, mother, father, and daughter spent time together.
When Elizabeth was about seven years old, her father joined her and her mother, finally getting to live together. The time, however, was short-lived. Her father was taken West soon after. Of the experience, Elizabeth wrote:
“My father and mother never met again in this world. They kept up a regular correspondence for years, and the most precious mementoes of my existence are the faded old letters that he wrote, full of love, and always hoping that the future would bring brighter days. In nearly every letter is a message for me. ‘Tell my darling little Lizzie,’ he writes, ‘to be a good girl, and to learn her book. Kiss her for me, and tell her that I will come to see her some day.’ Thus he wrote time and again, but he never came. He lived in hope, but died without ever seeing his wife and child.”
Life was a constant struggle for Elizabeth. In her teens, she was beaten at the whim of an owner who seemed to desire vengeance on Elizabeth. She was raped by her owner’s friend, from which Elizabeth became a mother. And in 1847, Elizabeth, her mother and son were taken to St. Louis, where Elizabeth worked as a seamstress. For twelve years, she worked many hours a day, her income going to support the family that enslaved her.
But it was also during these years of work as a seamstress that she met many women in town. Elizabeth was able to establish a network of connections. And in 1855, through a connection, Elizabeth secured a loan to purchase freedom for her and her son.
Elizabeth eventually made her way to Washington D.C., where she leveraged her skills as a seamstress, business savvy, and network to grow her business. She employed twenty seamstresses, making dresses for many women in town, including Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife.
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Note: Portrait of Elizabeth was taken in 1861.
“A Snapshot Biography of Elizabeth Keckley” sources: Keckley, Elizabeth (1868). Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co. / https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-story-of-elizabeth-keckley-former-slave-turned-mrs-lincolns-dressmaker-41112782/ / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Keckley/ / The White House Historical Association (https://www.whitehousehistory.org/photos/photo-1-57)