Sojourner's Place

ain't i a woman? a sojourner's salute to elizabeth hobbs keckly  

Posted by SjP in

Sojourner's Place is proud to present this series entitled: Ain't I a Woman? A Sojourner's Salute. Each post will present an African-American woman whose greatness and impact was or is largely overlooked by the history books or media. I hope you will find this series to be enlightening, educational, and inspirational in celebration of the lives of African-American women who made and are making a difference.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly 1818-1907

Born a Virginian slave, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly found herself being moved around or loaned out to different members of her master's family. After being moved to St. Louis, MO, Elizabeth was able to buy her freedom and move to Baltimore where she dreamed of making dresses for upper-class white women and opening a school for young African-American women.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth's dreams were not realized in Baltimore so she relocated to the Capital to find work. Destitute and without enough money to for a license to remain in the city for more than 30 days, her luck took a turn as some of her patrons who knew the mayor of the city provided her with the help she needed. She was able to find a place to stay and was eventually granted a license.

After making a dress for Mrs. Robert E. Lee, Elizabeth's business grew under the watchful eyes of many upper-class white women - including those of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. After receiving a request from the First Lady for an interview, Elizabeth was hired to be Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress for the March 4, 1861 inauguration of her husband, Abraham Lincoln.

Elizabeth became a very close friend and confidant of the First Lady and was very involved with the First Family. Her counsel was a source of comfort to Mrs. Lincoln during her time of bereavement with the death of her sons as well as when dealling with the day-to-day difficulties of living under the "First Lady microscope". The relationship between the First Lady and her modiste (or seamstress), however, would be severed following the President's assassination when an act of kindness and support would be construed by Mrs. Lincoln as a betrayal.

With her book, "Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House," Keckly intended to show the world that Mary Todd Lincoln was misunderstood. But advertisers labeled it as a 'literary thunderbolt' and a tell-all book by a black woman who had no business talking about the former first lady. Lincoln felt betrayed, and Keckly's sewing business suffered.

Elizabeth continued to work as a seamstress and taught young African-American women the trade. Later, she accepted a faculty position at Wiberforce University where she organized a dress exhibit for the Chicago World's Fair.

During the inauguration of President Barack Obama we learned quite a bit about the Lincoln Presidency as well as presidential history. Many waited with baited breath to see the gown that First Lady Michelle Obama would wear knowing that it - like all other inaugural gowns worn by First Ladies - would be displayed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. I wonder if Mrs. Obama's gown is in close proximity to those of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly currently on display in the Smithsonian.

Obliged to you for hearing me,
and now old
SjP ain't got nothin' more to say...
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This entry was posted at Monday, February 09, 2009 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the .

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