Elizabeth Hobbs BeckleyCredit: pwarlick

This is the story of a young woman who was born into the horrors of slavery only to emerge as the leader and founder of the Contraband Relief Association in Washington, D.C. Through profound adversity and shear determination, she bought her way out of slavery and became the confidante of a President’s wife.  She spent four years in the White House, and before her death she founded the Home for Destitute Women and Children. She was a resident there until her death in 1907 from a paralytic stroke. This woman is an example of the strength of any woman who struggles through the man made obstacles of the era and perseveres to the other side shining like a beacon of hope.

In 1818, a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Hobbs was born in Dinwiddie, Virginia, to Agnes a “privileged slave” who had learn to read and write. Her mother was a slave that was owned by Armistead Burwell and his wife. She learned that Armistead Burwell was her biological father on her mothers deathbed. When Elizabeth was a small child, her mother was permitted to marry another literate slave by the name of George Pleasant Hobbs. This was Elizabeth’s father in her eyes until George was separated from the family when his owners moved away.

Elizabeth began her official duties as nursemaid to the Burwell’s baby at the mere age of five. Being a child herself, she accidentally tipped over the infant’s cradle causing the baby to fall unto the floor. She soon understood the painful abuse and reality of slavery. While she resided there, her mother taught her how to sew. These skills would serve her well later in life. By the time she was 14, she was loaned out to the Burwell’s eldest son Robert in 1935 to serve in their household. Recently wed Robert Burwell was a Presbyterian minister who operated a boarding school for girls known as the Burwell School. This school was located in North Carolina.

She accompanied the family to Hillsborough, North Carolina and resided in their household. Remembering Robert’s compassion for her plight when he lived in his fathers house, she had fond memories of him, but she disliked his cruel wife. Anna hated her and created many problems for her. With the help of her neighbor William Bingham, Anna and he worked together to break her spirit for over four years. Even though she did the work of three servants, she found no comfort. One day William Bingham ordered her to strip so he could beat her. She resisted but was overpowered by his strength. She held back her tears to show him that he had no power over her. After several beatings he apologized and gave up. Shortly after enduring this brutal attack, her master implemented the same treatment. Not giving in to the torture, she endured the unthinkable and maintained her dignity. This woman shed no tears at the hands of her aggressor and therefore defeated his advances. During the five years she lived there, she became pregnant against her will by a prominent white man named Alexander M. Kirkland. Soon after, she gave birth to her son George.

After the birth of her son, she moved to St. Louis to work for Robert’s younger sister Anna Garland. Anna hired her out as a seamstress to make money for the family. Skilled in this occupation, she gained many wealthy clients. She remained very busy and gained a reputation for being an excellent seamstress. A young man that she had met and had relations with while in Virginia had also moved to St. Louis. He ask for her hand in marriage. She asked her master for her freedom, but was denied. She did not want to marry while in servitude and bring more children into the world in slavery. Finally, after several attempt to gain her freedom, her owner agreed to allow her to buy her way out of slavery for a sum of $1,200.00. In those times, this was a huge amount of money. One of her clients, Mrs. Le Bourgois gave her money that she owed her for her sewing services, and this kind lady raised the rest by getting loans that Keckley eventually paid back. At the age of 37, she bought her freedom for her and her son.

She finally married James and enrolled her son in Wilberforce University. Her marriage didn’t last long because her husband had misrepresented himself and he was still in servitude. Not only that, he was an alcoholic and lazy. She lived with him for eight years, and after her son died in the Civil War, she left James and St. Louis behind. After a small business stint in Baltimore never manifested, she relocated to Washington, D.C.

While in Washington she found herself destitute. She had her patrons in St. Louis drum up some sewing gigs for her and she made a dresses for the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Her business rapidly grew. After meeting a woman named Margaret McLean her life began to change. This woman insisted that she promptly make her a dress for an upcoming event and that if she would, she would introduce her to some of her connections in the White House.

On March 4, 1861, Keckley met Mary Todd during her husband Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. The next day she had an interview for a sewing position with the First Lady. Beating out a slew of woman, she became Mary Todd’s personal seamstress, and eventually, her best friend. She worked for the Lincoln’s for six years and was thought of as the only woman that could get along with Mary Todd. Over the years, Mary Todd posed for many portraits that featured Keckley’s gowns. Because of her position and intimacy with the Lincolns, she was able to get donations to establish the Contraband Relief Association in Washington D.C.

The Contraband Relief Association was the first organization that was created by and for blacks to provide aid to those that were economically deprived and physically displaced by the unjustness of slavery. By creating this venture she became well known and much loved by her people and around Washington D.C.

After Lincolns assassination, Mary Todd became very dependent on Keckley. She had always had a reputation of being mentally unstable. After departing with many items that reminded her of her late husband which included giving some of these items to Keckley, she began to sell the others in order to support herself. Later in an attempt to save her late son’s university that had been damaged in a fire, Keckley donated many of Lincoln’s possession to the university. This incident strained their failing relationship. Trying to defend Mrs. Lincoln’s unstable behavior, Keckley wrote a book about the Lincoln’s called "Behind the Scenes". This only backfired and Mary Todd Lincoln’s son had it pulled from the press. Their relationship was severed forever.

By the time that she was 72 she sold Lincoln’s final possessions in order to survive. She eventually gained employment at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Art. While she was there, she organized a dress exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair. After she retired she returned to Washington D.C. where she became a resident until her death at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, a home in which started with funds from the former Contraband Relief Association. You can check out her memoirs, ”Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and four years in the White House,” and learn more about the life of this amazing woman.

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