Library of Congress Magazine (LCM), Vol. 1 No. 2: November-December 2012 Page: 15
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FROM SLAVE TO BUSINESSWOMAN AND ACTIVIST: ELIZABETH KECKLEY
Elizabeth Keckley [sometimes spelled "Keckly"] was born a slave in 1818 in
Dinwiddie, Va. A series of moves by her master's family resulted in Elizabeth, her
mother and her young son living for a time in St. Louis, the home of a large free
black population. An able seamstress, Keckley worked several years for hire and
gained the support of many financial patrons, until she had enough money to buy
her freedom in 1855.
Her skills brought her to live and work in Washington, D.C., just before the war
broke out, and she quickly earned a word-of-mouth popularity among society
women. One such patron introduced Keckley to the newly elected president
Abraham Lincoln and his wife, for whom she became not only exclusive
dressmaker but also daily dresser and confidante.
Despite her gains, Keckley never forgot her humble beginnings and the suffering
of her people. From her 1868 book, "Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and
Four Years in the White House":
One fair summer evening I was walking the streets of Washington,
accompanied by a friend, when a band of music was heard in the distance.
We wondered what it could mean, and curiosity prompted us to find out its
meaning. We quickened our steps, and discovered that it came from the house
of Mrs. Farnham. We approached the sentinel on duty at the gate, and asked
what was going on. He told us that it was a festival given for the benefit
of the sick and wounded soldiers in the city. This suggested an idea to me. If
the white people can give festivals to raise funds for the relief of suffering
soldiers, why should not the well-to-do coloredpeople go to work to do
something for the benefits of suffering blacks? ... The next Sunday I made a
suggestion in the colored church, that a society of colored people be formed to
labor for the benefit of the unfortunate freedmen. 7he idea provedpopular,
and in two weeks "the Contraband ReliefAssociation" was organized, with
forty working members....
Armed with credentials, I took the train for New York, and went to the
Metropolitan, where Mrs. Lincoln had secured accommodations for me.
The next morning I told Mrs. Lincoln of my project; and she immediately
headed my list with a subscription of $200. I circulated among the colored
people, and got them thoroughly interested in the subject, when I was
called to Boston by Mrs. Lincoln, who wished to visit her son Robert,
attending college in that city. I met Mr. Wendell Phillips, and other Boston
philanthropists who gave me all the assistance in theirpower.
Through her business success and connections in Washington society, Keckley
helped many others make the transition from slavery to freedom.
Engraving from her autobiography
November/December 2012 www.loc.gov/lcm
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Office of Communications, Library of Congress. Library of Congress Magazine (LCM), Vol. 1 No. 2: November-December 2012, periodical, November 2012; Washington, D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc133017/m1/17/: accessed January 18, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .