The Burwell School


A place of beauty and history
Open to the public Wednesday - Sunday
Free admission

Anna Burwell

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 they operated a landmark girl's academy for both day and boarding students, Mr and Mrs. Burwell's Academy for Young Ladies.  Over 200 girls from NC and other states pursued a "classical English education" through a four-year course of study, with an emphasis on composition, literature, grammar, mathematics and science, French, art, music, philosophy and more.  Mrs. Burwell was the central force of the school whose goal was to create "thorough scholars and useful members of society."  At least five schools were operated by former Burwell School students,  and the Burwell family also led the Charlotte (NC) Female Academy (now Queens University) and Peace Institute in Raleigh, NC (now William Peace University).

After the departure of the Burwell family in 1857, the property was home to a series of families including notably 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 filled and busy with activity it was nicknamed "the Beehive."   Two Collins sons married Hillsborough girls, both of whom had attended the 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.

For more information on visiting,  click here.  


A special visitor!

Elizabeth Keckly visited Hillsborough - as portrayed by actress Lillian Garland.  (Ms Garland's husband, John Davis, is in the background.)

The downtown Market Pavilion was a lively scene on July 2 for an Independence Day celebration sponsored by the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough and the Music Makers Relief Foundation --  music, food and fun to celebrate the Fourth. The Burwell School sponsored an information table designed by Site Manager Ronda Tucker.  Hot and thirsty festival-goers were offered chilled waters or a glass of "Burwell Blackberry Fizz" (based on a cordial recipe of Mrs. Burwell's), as well as information on the School and a sign up sheet for volunteers and friends.

There was also a very special visitor -- Mrs. Elizabeth Keckly, portrayed by actress Lillian Garland of Prince William County, Virginia.  Ms. Garland is a member of a group of reenactors in Virginia, Women of the Civil War Era.  She was escorted by her husband John Davis (also in Civil War-era reproduction clothing) who was in North Carolina for a family reunion.   "Mrs. Keckly" visited Hillsborough in full regalia, braving the heat in mid-19th century dress, including an elegant silk day ensemble, stockings, shoes, gloves, "reticule," parasol and ruffled petticoats, to visit the Burwell School and the downtown festival.  We'll hope to see more of her during our Keckly Bicentennial observances in 2018.


At the Burwell School Keckly exhibit.



Keckly Bicentennial Year Planned for 2018



Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly was born into slavery in February, 1818, almost 200 years ago.  She spent seven tumultuous and pivotal years in Hillsborough (1835 - 1842)  as an enslaved member of the Burwell household, during which she reports she was subjected to several harsh beatings and the unwanted attentions of a local man, which resulted in the birth of a son.  

After the birth she was sent back to Virginia, and as a member of the household of Robert Burwell's sister Ann Garland, she was able to establish a St. Louis dressmaking business, purchase her freedom (in 1855), and establish herself as a "modiste" (designer/dressmaker) in Washington, DC.  She created many dresses for First Lady Mary Lincoln, and the two developed a close 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 and, while living in New York, she wrote an account of her life in Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.  A new edition of this book is available from Hillsborough's Eno Press and is available at the Burwell School or at Purple Crow Books).  The book caused a rift between Keckly and Mrs. Lincoln, and they never saw each other again.  

Mrs. Keckly continued her dressmaking business into the 1890's, then taught sewing and dressmaking for several years at Wilberforce University in Ohio.  She helped to train and launch many young women of color in careers in dressmaking and teaching. Upon returning to Washington, she lived in retirement as a paying boarder at the home for destitute women and children that she had helped to found.  She was always observed to be a woman of unfailing elegance, dignity and courtesy.

Elizabeth Keckly died in 1907 in Washington at the age of 89 soon after a stroke. 

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 Keckly bicentennial observance will be announced in the coming months.  We hope you'll join us in learning more about this remarkable woman.

Please click here to see an award - winning portrayal of Elizabeth Keckly's story by UNC-TV's Our State program, filmed in part at the Burwell School.