Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley was fashion stylist to the stars of Washington DC in the mid-1800s. As dressmaker and companion of Mary Todd Lincoln, she worked in the White House during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
But Elizabeth Keckley was not born into American high society. Well, in a way she was. She was born in 1818 in Dunwiddie County, Virginia. Her father was Col. Armistead Burwell, owner of the plantation. Her mother was Agnes, one of the plantation slaves. So Lizzy, as she was known, was born into slavery.
Agnes was born on the Burwell plantation in 1786. Her mother’s name was Kate. An accomplished seamstress, Agnes made clothes for the entire household. She also could read and write. She taught her daughter her skills.
Early years of Elizabeth Hobbs
Some time after Elizabeth’s birth, Agnes married George Pleasant Hobbs, a slave on a neighbouring plantation. When Elizabeth was 7, Hobbs was allowed to live on the Burwell plantation with her mother and her. But soon after he was forced to move, maybe to Kentucky or Tennessee. He never saw his family again. All three being literate, and allowed to correspond, they kept in touch by letter. Elizabeth believed George Hobbs was her biological father. Only shortly before Agnes died did she tell her daughter the truth of her parentage.
When Elizabeth was 14, she was sent to the Hillsborough NC household of the Burwell’s eldest son Robert, a Presbyterian minister. There she was forced into a sexual relationship with Alexander McKenzie Kirkland, a friend of Rev. Burwell. She had a son by him about 1838. She named the baby George.
Elizabeth returned to Virginia in 1842, to the household of Armistead’s daughter Anne and her husband Hugh Alfred Garland. Armistead Burwell had died in 1841. His widow Mary now lived at the Garlands, as did Elizabeth’s mother Aggy.
St. Louis, Missouri
In 1847 they all moved to St Louis, Missouri. Hugh Garland, a lawyer, was in financial trouble and hoped the move would improve his situation. He acted for the slave holders in the landmark Missouri case Dred Scott v. Sanford. Elizabeth kept his household afloat with the money she made making dresses for St. Louis society ladies.
In St. Louis, Elizabeth renewed an acquaintance with James Keckley from Virginia. He said he was free. They married. There is little about him in the autobiography she later wrote: “I lived with him eight years, let charity draw around him a mantle of silence.” She kept his surname, however.
While deciding whether to marry Keckley, she asked Hugh Garland if she could buy freedom for herself and her son. She did not want to have more children born into slavery. The price was $1,200 Garland said, knowing she had little chance of saving that amount of money.
Family tree of Elizabeth Keckley
Then Hugh Garland died in October 1854. Armistead Burwell Jr., a Vicksburg MS lawyer and Unionist, came to sort out his brother-in-law’s estate. He convinced his sister Anne to honour the agreement Elizabeth had reached with Hugh.
But raising $1,200 was still a huge problem. She decided to go to New York and fund-raise among anti-slavery groups there. Anne told her she could go if six white men would guarantee to cover the Garland “loss” should she not return. Five men agreed. Not enough.
Hearing of her distress, one of Elizabeth’s St. Louis clients stepped in. Mrs. Le Bourgois said she still owed Elizabeth money for dresses she’d made. Others also paid their “debts” or loaned Elizabeth money. So Elizabeth got the money she needed and, in November 1855, her emancipation papers.
She stayed in St. Louis another five years, working as a seamstress until she paid back those who had loaned her money. In 1857 her mother Agnes, who had gone to Armistead Jr.’s home in Vicksburg, died.
In 1860, Elizabeth and George moved to Washington DC. At first she taught dressmaking, then set up her own shop. Her contacts in St. Louis proved useful, and she gained a reputation as Washington’s preeminent dressmaker. Mary Todd Lincoln became a client. Eventually Mrs. Lincoln asked Elizabeth to work exclusively for her.
Anne Garland and her children returned to Virginia in 1861, no longer welcome in St. Louis due to their Confederacy sympathies. Her son Col. Hugh Garland Jr. was killed in the Battle of Franklin TN in 1864. He was Commander of the 1st Missouri Infantry.
Elizabeth’s son George, Hugh Jr.’s cousin, also fought and died in the Civil War. He enlisted under the surname Kirkland in the (white) 1st Missouri Volunteers of the Union Army. Pvt. Kirkland died in the Battle of Wilson Creek August 10, 1861. (Read more about him.)
Lincoln White House and after
Mrs. Keckley spent the war years at the White House with the Lincoln family. In 1866 she published her autobiography, entitled Behind the Scenes, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. It shocked Washington society, and angered Mary Lincoln. Mrs. Keckley meant it as a defence of the impoverished and increasingly criticized former First Lady. But the book was seen as airing private matters and trading on connections. Her social standing, and dressmaking business, plummeted.
Elizabeth moved to Ohio in 1892 where she became head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. She was then 74. She returned to Washington where she died at the age of 89. Examples of her dressmaking – including the gown Mrs. Lincoln wore for her husband’s 2nd inauguration – are in museum collections. So too is a quilt she made from scraps of the silks and satins she’d used in making those gowns. (More on Mrs. Keckley’s design style.)
Distant cousins, maybe
If my Canadian Burwell family is related to the Virginia Burwells, then Elizabeth Keckley is my 8th cousin 4 times removed. That makes Armistead Burwell and his whole slaveholding family my cousins as well. Mrs. Keckley reconciled that somehow. She didn’t sugarcoat her years in slavery, but she remained in contact with Anne Garland to the end of her life.
Whether or not we are related, it’s interesting. Within the immediate family of Armistead Burwell, you find those who were enslaved and those who enslaved them. Those who worked for slavery and those who worked against it. Soldiers in the Union Army and in the Confederate Army. America in a nutshell maybe.
The White House Historical Association gives more details on Mrs. Keckley’s life and that of the Burwells. George Kirkland’s photo is from Petersburg Preservation. Below are links to a biography of Mrs. Keckley and a historical novel about George Hobbs Kirkland, both by Jennifer Fleischner.