Elizabeth Keckley, From Hillsborough to the White House

Elizabeth Keckley.On March 4, 1861, successful African American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley met soon-to-be First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln for the first time at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.

It was the day of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, and Mary was too busy with plans for the festivities to talk with Keckley, who was recommended by a friend. After a brief meeting at the White House the next day, Mary hired Keckley.

The two women quickly developed a close friendship, and Keckley even assisted the President with his clothes and hair before public appearances.

In 1868, Keckley published her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or 30 Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Though Keckley claimed she wrote the book to help support the widowed Lincoln financially, its publication created a rift between the two women that would never be healed.

The entire book has been digitized by UNC-Chapel Hill is available online for free.

Born a slave in Virginia around 1820, Keckley came to Hillsborough with her master’s son in 1835. After 37 years in slavery she purchased her freedom and that of her son George in 1855, and left an abusive husband in 1860 to move to Washington where she started her dressmaking business.

Keckley died in Washington, D.C. in 1907.

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