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A Stich in Time

One of my favorite exhibits at the National Museum of American History is the Presidents and First Ladies exhibit. I enjoy looking at all the dresses that the First Ladies have worn and seeing the way fashion has changed over our country's history. I can remember being so excited to see Mrs. Obama's first inaugural ball gown when she wore it and then later getting to see it in person at the First Ladies exhibit.

As I wrote in my post, Georgian January, there is an importance in the clothes that the First Lady and Vice President chose to wear to the Inaugural events not only for the symbolisms included but also for the designers they (the First Lady and VP) chose to make their clothes. There are messages sent by who they choose, whether young fashion designers or staple American fashion houses. The life stories of the ones wearing the clothes are not the only important life stories. The life stories of the seamstresses/dressmakers and designers who made those dress are just as important.

One of those dressmakers has an especially interesting story. Her name is Elizabeth Hobbs. Elizabeth was born a slave in February 1818. She and her mother Agnes lived on the Burwell plantation in Dinwiddie County, Virginia.

"The circumstances surrounding her birth were complex. Sometime during the spring of 1817, while plantation owner Colonel Armistead Burwell’s wife, Mary, was pregnant with the couple’s tenth child, an enslaved woman named Agnes (Aggy) Hobbs became pregnant by Colonel Burwell. . . . Despite her parentage, Elizabeth Hobbs was born enslaved. Aggy’s husband, George Pleasant Hobbs, was an enslaved man that worked on a nearby plantation. Even though Elizabeth was not his child, George remained devoted to Agnes and Elizabeth and she considered him her father. Her mother gave her the last name of George’s family, a direct sign of autonomy and resistance. Elizabeth also did not know the truth behind her parentage until later in life." (1)

Elizabeth would grow up working for the Burwells. She would also learn the trade of dressmaking and seamstress work from her mother who was trained as a seamstress.

In 1847, she and her son George (who's parentage was similar to his mother's) were loaned/given to Elizabeth's own half sister Anne Burwell Garland (Colonel Burwell and his wife Mary's tenth child) and her husband Hugh Alfred Garland, who lived in St. Louis, Missouri. (In the quotation below Elizabeth is referred to by her married name Mrs. Keckley.)

"Staunchly pro-slavery, Garland was retained along with Yale graduate Lyman Decatur Norris (1823-1894) to defend the "property interests" of John F. A. Sanford and his sister, Mrs Irene Sanford Emerson Chaffee, whose slave, Dred Scott, had filed a suit for manumission in the Missouri courts. . . . Prior to his death [on 14 October 1854], Garland reluctantly agreed to permit his sister-in-law to purchase freedom for herself and her son. Since neither Mrs. Keckley nor her son were legally Garland's personal property, but rather that of his mother-in-law in Mississippi, the transaction required the assistance of Garland's brother-in-law (Mrs. Keckley's half brother) the "notorious" Vicksburg abolitionist and attorney, Armistead Burwell (1810-1878). Hugh Alfred Garland's early death prevented him from witnessing the manumission of Mrs. Keckley or the outcome of the Dred Scott case against John F. A. Sanford."(2)

Despite the popularity of the Dred Scott case, the Garlands were in tight financial straights. Elizabeth worked to help bring in money for the family as she also worked to save for her freedom.

"She used her dressmaking skills to earn money from outside clients, which helped support the Garland family but also allowed Elizabeth to accrue enough, aided by patrons, to buy freedom for herself and her son in 1852 for $1,200." (3)

After purchasing their freedom, Elizabeth would marry a fugitive slave named James Keckley, who she would later separate from yet keep her married name. Eventually, Elizabeth and her son moved to Washington DC. She would send her son to Wilberforce University, in Ohio. George's fair completion (being the son of a white man and a mother of mixed race), would enable him to enlist as a Union soldier in St Louis on 24 April 1861. Unfortunately, he was killed in his very first battle, at the Battle of Wilson's Creek on 10 August 1861.

In DC, Elizabeth worked as a seamstress to some of the Washington elite ladies, including the wives of Senators Jefferson Davis and Stephen A. Douglas. Her work would bring her to the White House and into the service of Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln. Elizabeth became a close friend and confidant to Mrs. Lincoln. However, sewing was not her only project, Elizabeth would also found the Contraband Relief Association.

"Concerned with the welfare of recently freed slaves who flooded into Washington during the Civil War, in 1862 Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association, which offered food, clothing, and shelter to the most destitute segments of the African American population. Keckley was able to recruit support for the association from figures such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and President and Mrs. Lincoln." (4)

After the war Elizabeth would publish a book about her life and her time in the White House. Her book, "Behind the Scenes, Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four years in the White House", she hoped would help people to better understand Mrs. Lincoln, however instead it drove her out of Mrs. Lincoln's confidence.

"Elizabeth Keckly continued sewing after the book’s publication, but some of her customers disappeared. She later began training Black seamstresses and passed on her knowledge. In 1892, she accepted a position as the head of Wilberforce University’s Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts and moved to Ohio before returning to Washington after suffering a possible stroke. She died in 1907 at the age of eighty-nine, after living an extraordinary and remarkable life." (1)

As Sojourner Truth was to words and speeches, Elizabeth was to sewing. Both women found ways to have their voices ring down through ages.



People listed in this article:

Find a Grave:

Books and Websites:

Fashion History Timeline - 1818 - 1907 Elizabeth Keckley

Freedom By the Sword: A Historian's Journey Through the American Civil War Era - Pvt. George W.D Kirkland: The Conflicted Legacy of Elizabeth Keckley’s Only Son

Library of Congress - Elizabeth Keckley

Mr. Lincoln's White House - Elizabeth Keckley 1818 - 1907

National Museum of American History - First Ladies Exhibit and Interactive First Ladies Exhibit

Virginia Museum of History & Culture - Elizabeth Keckley

Wikipedia - Elizabeth Keckley



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