Elizabeth Keckley: Ex-slave, successful businesswoman and close friend, confidante and advisor to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1818, Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave in Dinwiddie, Virginia, the property of Armistead and Mary Burwell. Burwell was a plantation owner with 70 slaves* and a colonel in the U.S.’s War of 1812.
Elizabeth’s mother Agnes, a house slave, had been taught to read and write; a special privilege for it was illegal to educate slaves, lest they might seek freedom. Later Elizabeth would also be taught to read and write.
Elizabeth, with a light complexion, never knew who her father was until her mother on her death bed told her. The man who fathered her was Colonel Burwell, their owner, and a father of 10 children by his wife Mary. It is unknown if Colonel Burwell forced himself on Agnes.
But Elizabeth did have a stepfather, George Pleasant Hobbs, a slave on a nearby plantation, who was allowed to marry Agnes and who loved Agnes and his “darling little Lizzie.” But when Colonel Burwell moved to another plantation, as did George’s owner, Agnes and George at first saw each other again only on Christmas and Easter, and then never again.
For the rest of their lives, with permission from their owners, and with the fervent hope they would reunite, Agnes and George wrote loving letters to each other, letters which Elizabeth treasured for the rest of her life.
In 1825, seven year old Elizabeth saw her first slave auction. Colonel Burwell bought some hogs and was unable to pay for them in full, so he had the cook’s small son “little Joe” brought to him and he sold the child at auction. The hysterical mother pleaded for her child but to no avail and when she continued pleading each day, she was whipped to silence her.
At age 14 in 1832, Elizabeth was given to the Colonel’s eldest son Robert when Robert married Margaret Anna Robertson. Robert, a Presbyterian minister, and his family subsequently moved to North Carolina and they took Elizabeth with them.
Margaret Burwell despised Elizabeth and induced a schoolmaster William Bingham to try to break her spirit. On three occasions he severely beat Elizabeth, who absorbed the beatings, her spirit unbroken. Afterward, those beatings continued for a time by her owner Robert, the Presbyterian minister.
But while these men could not break Elizabeth’s spirit, she was forced to have a four year sexual relationship with a prominent white man, Alexander Kirkland. From that relationship, in 1839 she bore her only child, a son she named George in honor of her stepfather and she gave the child the last name of Kirkland for the man who fathered him.
After George’s birth, Elizabeth was sent back to Virginia with her baby to serve Colonel Burwell’s daughter Ann Burwell Garland and Garland’s husband Hugh. However the Garlands had severe financial problems and they sold some of their slaves to raise money.
But they did not sell Elizabeth or George and in the years that followed the family relocated to St. Louis. There Elizabeth developed a remarkable skill as a dressmaker, and built an upscale white clientele for her dresses. Her income was so substantial, it supported the Garland family and their slaves, 17 people, paying for the Garlands to live in comfort, as she remained a slave.
For two years, Elizabeth pleaded with Hugh Garland to free her and her son George but she was too valuable and he refused. After his death, a Burwell family member agreed to free them but set a premium price of $1200. To raise so large an amount of money Elizabeth appealed to her white patrons, who in 1855 paid this sum and Elizabeth and her son were free at last.
Elizabeth remained in St. Louis until she earned enough money to repay her patrons. She had married James Keckley, a black man, but as a result of his alcoholism, divorced him.
In 1860, Elizabeth relocated to Washington, DC and with her outstanding skills and her reputation as a leading dressmaker, built a substantial clientele among the white elite.
Ironically, among the elite, she and her staff created gowns for Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, wife of later Confederate General Robert E. Lee and for Varina Banks Howell Davis, married to Jefferson Davis, who would become the President of the Confederate States of America when the South withdrew from the U.S. to uphold its right to slavery.
That withdrawal set off the U.S. Civil War (1861 – 1865). When the North defeated the South, it ended 250 years of U.S. slavery, with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
But prior to the Civil War, through her clientele, Elizabeth was introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the new President, Abraham Lincoln. This was at a time, as it had always been, when the black people who visited the White House were slaves and those who worked menial jobs.
Now from her relationship with the First Lady and with the President, Elizabeth was welcomed in as a person of respect and importance, perhaps the first of her race to receive such recognition in the White House.
But tragedy struck. Early in the U.S. Civil War, Elizabeth’s son George enlisted in the Northern Army and was killed in battle in 1861. While early in 1862, the Lincoln’s 11 year old son Willie died of tuberculosis. The two women as mothers comforted each other through their traumatic loss and heartache.
Elizabeth and the First Lady became such close friends that not only did Elizabeth make gowns for her but helped to dress Mary Lincoln and helped her do her hair. Eventually Elizabeth joined Mary and her staff in planning White House social events and joined Mary Lincoln on her New York shopping excursions. For Elizabeth had become her close friend, confidant and advisor.
For the rest of the Lincoln Presidency, and for years afterward, the women remained close, and Mary Lincoln’s dresses, worn at major social functions and for photographers were designed by Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had become well-known among the free black community, as well as among the white elite and was able to cross color lines like few other people of her time.
As a result, she used that celebrity to help start the Contraband Relief Association in 1862 from donations from Abraham and Mary Lincoln and other white patrons and free black people. This organization offered food and housing, clothing and counseling for slaves fleeing their masters and care for sick and injured black soldiers.
In all it was a remarkable journey for a woman who had spent part of her life as the property of others, yet Elizabeth would live to see the promising new 20th Century, passing away at the age of 89 in 1907. She kept a photo of Mary Todd Lincoln with her for the rest of her life.
To read Elizabeth in her own words, please see her remarkable autobiography, “Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House,” (1868). An additional source for this piece was Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Keckley where you can see a picture of Elizabeth. *Note: Colonel Burwell’s number of slaves varied.
In the next KazanToday:
A man who shows us, you don’t have to be rich to be wealthy.
Before you print your stories you should do some fact checking. Elizabeth Keckley was always known to have a self-serving agenda and she made some highly questionable and self-serving claims throughout her life.
While Keckley’s complexion leads us to believe she may be of mixed racial heritage, there is no credible evidence to support her claim that Armistead Burwell was her biological father. In fact, many slaves were known to falsely claim paternity of the “master” for a variety of reasons. I contacted Jenifer Fleischner when her book about Keckley came out to see if I could locate some new “relatives” on Keckley’s side. Fleishner informed me that there were no descendants or any dna, or other evidence to support Keckley’s claim of paternity. Fleischner apparently just accepted Keckley’s claim because it fits the current pc agenda about the South in those days.
Your article also forgot to mention that my great great grandfather Robert Burwell was a highly regarded Presbyterian minister and educator. He and Margaret dedicated their entire lives, in very meager circumstances, educating females in the early 18th century south when society did not consider that to be a priority. Beating a defenseless servant girl is obviously inconsistent with all else that is known about Rev Burwell and his wife. I think you will find that Keckley was in fact educated at the Burwell School in Hillsboro, NC by Margaret Burwell. So, if it hadn’t been for Margaret Burwell, Keckley probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what she did achieve in later life.
Keckley was known to be a very strong very willed and difficult personality. She and Mrs. Lincoln were not friends at the end of their relationship. In fact, the book she wrote about Mary Todd Lincoln was so controversial it was removed from publication.
I know it’s politically correct to canonize ex slaves these days, especially females, but your article doesn’t help us much with the real facts.
Armistead Burwell Jr.
Thank you for contacting me to offer an alternative perspective on the Elizabeth Keckley piece we published on 8/28/12, particularly a Burwell family perspective, which makes it special to me.
In preparing this Keckley piece, I did considerable research including reading her 1868 book, “Behind The Scenes, or Thirty years a slave, and Four Years in The White House.”
You referenced DNA as a means of determining paternity as to Ms. Keckley’s claims of Burwell fatherhood. Locating DNA for Ms. Keckley would be extremely difficult, as her only child, one fathered by a white man, was killed in the Civil War, and he had no heirs.
Ms. Keckley had been Ms. Lincoln’s closest friend and confidant, but Ms. Lincoln clearly considered the Keckley book sharing the behind the scenes look in the White House a violation of her confidence and brought the relationship to an end.
White moneyed society, which were most of Ms. Keckley’s clientele, because of that book ended their business relationship with her, and as a result, Ms. Keckley lived the latter years of her life in poverty.
This website publishes the facts as best our research can determine them. There is no intention of political correctness or canonizing any person. Our readers expect candor and insight and trust us accordingly, a trust I would never choose to violate.
But I appreciate you contacting me and sharing your perspective. And in the interest of fairness, I will publish your comments verbatim on our Master Copy, which is kept in the Archive, so that visitors can read your comments and perhaps come to a different conclusion than what we published.
I wonder if you're aware that Keckley was very upset with Col Burwell for assigning her to his son Robert Burwell because Robert was a poor Presbyterian minister with little means and a lifestyle to match.
Anyway, we have just grown tired of uninformed readers accepting Keckley's version of events without a questioning or critical thought.
Good luck in your work and thanks for responding. AB