Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born a slave in Virginia in 1818, she was forced to be a nursemaid for an infant at only 4 years old. Her mother was a house slave, her father the slave master. She endured years of abuse at the hands of various slave owners and their wives. As a teenager, Elizabeth was forced into a sexual relationship for 4 years and gave birth to her rapist son. Regardless of the physical and emotional abuse put upon her, Elizabeths spirit could not be broken.
Elizabeths mother Agnes taught her to constantly build upon her skill set to stay valuable. When one of the families that owned her fell on hard times, Elizabeths sewing helped support the family. She used this to her advantage and established connections with both free Blacks and white women who desired her skills as a free dressmaker. She leveraged those connections to help gain freedom for her and her son – in November of 1855 she paid her slave owner $1200. Determined to create a better life as a free Black woman, Elizabeth enrolled in Wilberforce University. In the early 1860’s she and her son moved to Baltimore where she planned to teach “colored women” her system of cutting and fitting dresses on the body. Elizabeths goal was to make it to Washington D.C., she knew the political clientele was just what she needed to build a sustainable business. Things didn’t go as well as she’d hoped for and after only 6 weeks she hardly had enough money to support herself.
With money low and Maryland’s growing number of repressive laws against free Blacks, Elizabeth remembered the lessons from her mother and appealed to her white patrons. Again, she used her relationships and gained a free work license allowing her to stay in the Baltimore/D.C area indefinitely. Elizabeth worked tirelessly to establish a name for herself. Within a short time, she was receiving enough commissions for dresses to support herself and her son.
Most of Elizabeths clients were wives of the government elite which is how she was introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861. She went on to become Mrs. Lincoln’s dress maker and personal stylist, dressing her each day and for official receptions and social events. For 6 years Elizabeth Keckley was the sole designer and creator of Mary Todd Lincoln’s wardrobe.
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