In 1818, Elizabeth Hobbes (or Hobbs), known as “Lizzie," was born into slavery in the household of Col. Armistead Burwell in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. In 1831, Col. Burwell "gave" Lizzie to his eldest son, Robert Burwell, upon his marriage to Margaret Anna Robertson. In 1835, the seventeen-year-old arrived in Hillsborough with the Burwell family as their only enslaved servant.
Slavery in Hillsborough
Elizabeth spent six years in the Burwell household. Elizabeth wrote the family “practiced the closest economy” and she “did the work of three servants, and yet I was scolded and regarded with distrust.” She described Rev. Burwell as “unusually kind” and “naturally good natured,” but described Mrs. Burwell as “morbidly sensitive” with a “cold, jealous heart.”
Elizabeth suffered beatings delivered by the Rev. Burwell and a neighbor named William Bingham. After several beatings by Mr. Bingham, Elizabeth wrote in her memoir that Mr. Bingham, “burst into tears and declared that it would be a sin to beat me anymore. My suffering had at last subdued his hard heart; he asked my forgiveness and afterwards was an altered man.”
According to Elizabeth, the Rev. Burwell also administered two severe beatings with encouragement from Mrs. Burwell, after one of which she was unable to get out of bed for five days. She wrote “One morning he went to the wood-pile, took an oak broom, cut the handle off, and with this heavy handle attempted to conquer me. I fought him, but he proved the strongest. At the sight of my bleeding form, Ms. Anna fell on her knees and begged the Rev. to desist.” According to Keckly, the beatings stopped when the Rev. Burwell, “told me with an air of penitence, that he should never strike me another blow; and faithfully he kept his word.”
Elizabeth wrote how the town of Hillsborough reacted to these beatings and brutality. “These revolting scenes created a great sensation at the time, were the talk of the town and the neighborhood, and I flatter myself that the actions of those who had conspired against me were not viewed in a light to reflect much credit upon them.”
The savage efforts to subdue my pride were not the only things that brought me suffering and deep mortification during my residence at Hillsboro. I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man—I spare the world his name—had base designs on me. I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I—I—became a mother. The child of whom he was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world. If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.
Freedom in St. Louis
In 1842, Elizabeth and her young son George returned to Virginia to the household of the Rev. Burwell’s younger sister, Ann Burwell Garland and her husband Hugh A. Garland. In 1847, the Garland family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Elizabeth Hobbes married James Keckly, a man who represented himself as free, when in reality, he was a runaway slave. The Garland’s hired Elizabeth out as a seamstress to provide income for the family. She gained the reputation as prompt, reliable, and skilled, and soon reached the level of modiste , a designer of the most intricate and well fit gowns. In 1855, Elizabeth’s patrons loaned her $1,200 to purchase her freedom and that of her son George Kirkland from the Garland family.
On November 15, 1855 the deed of emancipation of Elizabeth Keckly and George Kirkland was signed by Ann Garland. In her memoir, Mrs. Keckly wrote of this event; “Free! The earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy. Yes, free! Free by the laws of man and the smile of God—and Heaven bless them who made me so.” Elizabeth remained in St. Louis until 1860 to repay this loan to her patrons.
From Slavery to the White House
In 1860, Elizabeth established her own dressmaking business, first in Baltimore and later in Washington, D.C. As a modiste she acquired a clientele of the wives of prominent politicians and businessmen, including Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Keckly’s relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln evolved into more than that of a dressmaker and her client. She served as Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante and in the First Lady’s own words, her “best friend.” In this position, she interacted with the First Family on a personal basis, traveled with the First Lady, and was an intimate witness to many of the events of the Civil War and Lincoln Presidency.
During these years, Mrs. Keckly founded the First Black Contraband Relief Association to assist newly freed slaves and served as its president. In 1861, her son George died fighting for the Union during the Civil War.
Behind the Scenes
In 1868, in an attempt to tell her story and rehabilitate the declining reputation of Mrs. Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckly wrote a memoir entitled Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House . Despite Mrs. Keckly’s best intentions, the publication of her memoir marked the end of her friendship with Mrs. Lincoln who felt her confidence had been betrayed.
Elizabeth Hobbes Keckly later taught in the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Willberforce University in Ohio. She died in Washington, D.C., in 1907, at the age of 88.
Today, Behind the Scenes is recognized as a rare and outstanding example of a slave memoir written by a woman. At the Burwell School Historic Site, the chapter in Behind the Scenes on Mrs. Keckly’s time in Hillsborough provides an invaluable first-person perspective on the slave experience in the Burwell household.
In 2013, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Burwell School, the public television program "Our State," of WUNC-TV filmed a segment on the extraordinary story of Elizabeth Keckly. Much of the segment was actually filmed at the School, featuring local actors, and the Executive Director was one of those interviewed for the segment. The segment earned several regional Emmy's and can be viewed here.