Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. She was sent out to work by her enslaver to make money for his family. She worked as a seamstress and soon had several prominent customers, several of whom loaned her money so she could purchase her freedom.
Keckley moved to Washington, DC in 1860 where she opened a successful dressmaking business. At one point she had 20 female employees in the business.
Keckley was highly sought after by the Washington elite and was soon the dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She and Mrs. Lincoln bonded and became friends and traveling companions.
In 1862, with the help of her church, Keckley established the Contraband Relief Organization to help newly freed slaves in the Washington DC area. She was the organization’s first president and her connection to Mrs. Lincoln helped her find needed financial support.
She published her diaries, “Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” in 1868. The book, which was somewhat of a tell-all, was condemned by blacks and whites. It also brought an end to the Keckley-Lincoln friendship. Even though her business was affected she was able to maintain some customers as well support other African American women by training them to be dressmakers.
In 1892 Keckley moved to Ohio to take the position of Head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. After her employment at Wilberforce, she returned to Washington DC where she died in 1907.
One of the dresses, believed to have been made by Elizabeth Keckley for Mary Todd Lincoln, is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.