Mar 3, 2023
Many remember Elizabeth Keckley from the film “Lincoln” as Mrs.
Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidant. But the story of the woman
behind that film character is much deeper and fascinating and
dramatic than most know. Just press play to hear the whole story.
Podcast Transcript: I’m Cicely Hunter, Public Historian from the Missouri Historical Society, and here’s history, on eighty-eight-one, KDHX. ———
Black women displayed their skill and brilliance as they wove and stitched together pieces of fabric to create beautiful ensembles. One woman whose ingenuity brought her from St. Louis to Washington D.C., was Elizabeth (Lizzie) Hobbs Keckly (also spelled Keckley). Her toiling and skillful hands whisked her into prominence as she created dresses for President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Widely held as a controversial book, Elizabeth Keckley published a narrative detailing her experiences and life in Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House in 1868. ———
Keckley was born enslaved in Virginia during February 1818, and she worked as a domestic servant from a young age, learning how to sew alongside her mother. Keckley’s slaveholders moved her, her mother, Agnes, and her son, George, to St. Louis in 1846 in hopes to improve their economic fortune. She was hired out as a seamstress and dressmaker to sustain the Garlands. She expressed, “With my needle I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months.” ———
Keckley desired freedom and labored as a skilled seamstress to
obtain it, gaining a reputation as the best dressmaker in St. Louis
and working with prominent families. Her clients offered to loan
her the money to purchase her and her son’s freedom, and in
November 1855 she borrowed $1,200—about $35,000 today. For the next
five years, she worked to repay them. ———
In 1860 she moved east—first to Baltimore and then Washington, DC. She was soon sewing dresses for the wives of Jefferson Davis and Stephen Douglas and her most notable client, First Lady Mary Lincoln who Keckley became her confidante and dressmaker. ———
For more information about St. Louis Black history, please visit our website mohistory.org/aahi. Here’s history is a joint production of the Missouri Historical Society and KDHX. I’m Cicely Hunter and this is eighty-eight-one, KDHX, St. Louis. ———