A house museum in the Historic District of Hillsborough, NC
Open to the public Wednesday - Sunday
Free admission, tours daily
1810 - 1871
The Burwell School Historic Site brings important 19th century history alive for 4,500 visitors a year. The three buildings (house, classroom building and "necessary") stand on two green, shaded acres on Churton Street in Hillsborough's Historic District; the site is one of the earliest in the area to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From 1835 - 1857 this property was the home of the Rev. Robert Armistead Burwell, his wife, Margaret Anna Robertson Burwell, and their twelve children. For twenty of those years, as a means of supplementing Robert's modest minister's salary, they operated an academy for girls from the area and far beyond. As a school in the antebellum South, the school was available only to white girls; more than 200 girls attended the school, which offered a fairly rigorous curriculum over a four-year span. Several of these young women later operated their own schools, including the Nash & Kollock School in Hillsborough.
For seven years of the Burwells' time in Hillsborough the site was also the workplace and home of Elizabeth Hobbs, an enslaved Burwell family servant "on loan" to Robert and Anna. Her time in the household was marked by hard work and harsh treatment to quell her "determined" nature. She later purchased her freedom from Robert's sister and became a very successful and admired dressmaker and businesswoman in Washington under her married name of Elizabeth Keckly. Mrs. Keckly became Mary Lincoln's "modiste" and confidential friend during the Civil War, an experience she related in her memoir, "Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House."
The Burwell family closed their school in 1857. The property was then home to a series of tenants and owners, including that of Josiah Collins III of Somerset Place plantation in eastern NC. The extended Collins family family took "refuge" there from the Civil War and the house was so busy with activity it was nicknamed "the Beehive." Later the property was owned by Dr. John Spurgeon, a prominent dentist, and his wife Carrie Waitt Spurgeon, whose mother had attended the Burwell School.
The property was acquired in the 1960's by the newly-established Historic Hillsborough Commission, which raised the funds to restore the buildings and open it to the public as a historic site. The Commission raises all funds locally to operate the site through grants, fundraisers, and donations. (Want to help? Join the Friends of the Burwell School!)
For more information on visiting, click here.
Susan Mary Kirkland
1843 - 1914
Born in 1843, the daughter of John and Elizabeth Kirkland of Ayr Mount plantation in Hillsborough, Susan Mary Kirkland attended the Burwell School, as had her older sister Annie, and later attended the Nash & Kollock School on Margaret Lane.
Her life was a credit to her dedicated teachers.
Heeding her father's edict that she must learn to support herself, Sue May, as she was always called, moved to Raleigh to live with her sister and teach music at Peace Institute, a girls' academy which under the leadership of John Burwell and his father Robert Burwell, whose school Miss Kirkland had attended as a girl in Hillsborough. She was invited to take the post of Lady Principal at the new Normal and Industrial School for women in Greensboro (now UNCG) and held that position for 22 years.
Sue May Kirkland was known and emulated for her dignity, kindness, character and dedication. When she was addressed as "Mrs.Kirkland," she would politely state that she was "Miss Kirkland, by choice."
After Miss Kirkland's death in 1914 the college named a dormitory in her honor; when that building was demolished in 1964, a "Kirkland Room" was dedicated to her on the UNC-G campus.
To learn more about the remarkable Sue May Kirkland, click here to visit the UNC-G "Spartan Archives" and read an account of this much-loved lady.
This account was provided by the Research Committee of the Burwell School's Historic Hillsborough Commission, which carries out research into the people of the Burwell School. Click on the "research" tab above to read more about the students of the Burwell School.
To mark the 200th anniversary of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly’s birth, the Burwell School Historic Site is planning a year-long series of events, beginning February 2018 and continuing through February 2019.
We will invite leading historians to detail her life and times and showcase artists who have been inspired by her story, and have produced plays, novels, and works of visual art about her. We will hold demonstrations and workshops that highlight the skills she utilized as a designer, maker, and fitter of women’s clothes and we will place her story in the context of Hillsborough’s own vibrant African American community.
Elizabeth Hobbs was born into slavery in February, 1818, almost 200 years ago, the daughter of Agnes Hobbs, an enslaved member of the Virginia household of Armistead Burwell. She spent seven tumultuous and pivotal years in Hillsborough (1835 - 1842) as an enslaved member of the Robert A. Burwell household, (son of Armistead), during which she reports she was subjected to several harsh beatings at the insistance of Anna Buwell, as well as the unwanted attentions of a local white man, which resulted in the birth of a son whom she named George.
Elizabeth and her young son returned to Virginia to serve in the household of Robert Burwell's sister Ann and her husband, Hugh Garland, with who she moved to St. Louis. There Elizabeth was established in a dressmaking business which for some years supportd the Garlands. She married James Keckly there, and although the marriage was not a success she retained her married name. Mrs. Keckly purchased her freedom in 1855 and by 1859 had a clientele of prominent customers in Washington, DC. She created many dresses for First Lady Mary Lincoln, and the two developed a close confidance and friendship during difficult times for the First Lady. Always an activist in support of those in need, Mrs. Keckly helped to establish an organization to support freed slaves, called "contraband." Mrs. Lincoln supplied one of the first donations to this organization. Sadly, Keckly's son George Kirkland was killed ighting for the Union at the battle of Wilson's Creek, having enlisted as a white soldier.
After the assassination of Lincoln Mrs. Keckly wrote an account of her life: Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, partly in an effort to counteract the negative public opinion held toward Mrs. Lincoln. Unfortunately, public opinion also turned against her, and her friendship with Mary Lincoln was irreparably damaged.
She continued her dressmaking business into the 1890's, living in both Washington and New York, then taught sewing and dressmaking at Wilberforce University in Ohio. She helped to train and launch many young women of color in careers in dressmaking and teaching. Elizabeth Keckly lived her final years in quiet retirement in Washington as a paying boarder at a home for destitute women and children that she had helped to found.
Elizabeth Keckly died in 1907 in Washington at the age of 89 soon after a stroke. She was buried in Washington but her remains were later moved to a national cemetery in Maryland.
The opening event of the Keckly bicentennial year is a program on the African American communities of Hillsborough in the early 1800's, presented by Reginal Hildebrand, PhD, Professor Emeritus in History at UNC-Chapel Hill, to be held at Dickerson Chapel AME Church in Hillsborough on February 11, 2018.
More events and details for the bicentennial observance will be announced in the coming months.