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A photograph of Elizabeth Keckley, circa 1861.

Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

Born into slavery in 1818, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (also spelled Keckly) learned to sew from her mother and this skill would eventually bring her freedom and success. She developed into an accomplished seamstress and the income from her dressmaking supported the family that enslaved her. In 1855, she purchased her freedom and that of her son with loans from her clients. After coming to Washington in 1860, she established her own business and developed a clientele of prominent politicians' wives.

Some of Keckley's customers recommended her to Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861, and she soon became a frequent visitor to Lafayette Square as the First Lady's regular dressmaker. The two women also developed a friendship, comforting each other as they both grieved for sons who died within seven months of one another. The First Lady donated money to Keckley's Contraband Relief Association, which aided newly-freed slaves who had come to the capital, and Keckley was the one person for whom Lincoln asked in the hours after her husband's assassination. Keckley also assisted the former First Lady with the controversial sale of her clothing after she left the White House, and the two women maintained a close connection until the publication of Keckley's memoir in 1868.

Keckley continued her dressmaking business in Washington, where she also trained other African American women to be seamstresses, until the 1890s when she accepted a position on the faculty at Ohio's Wilberforce University. She ultimately returned to Washington, D.C., where she died in 1907.

A quilt said to be made by Elizabeth Keckley from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln's dresses.

Kent State University Museum

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