The Burwell School Historic Site


A house museum in the Historic District of Hillsborough, NC
Opening to the public February 1, 2018
Visitors welcome Wednesday - Sunday
Free admission, tours daily

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, 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 dressmaker in Washington under her married name of Elizabeth Keckly.  She 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 and moved to Charlotte, NC.  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.  


2018 Keckly Bicentennial Year


In February, 1818, the home records of Mrs. Armistead Burwell record the birth of a daughter to house slave Agnes Hobbs, "Lizzie," in her household near Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia.  The life of this baby surely seemed preordained:  to serve her master and mistress.   The first half of Elizabeth Hobbs' life followed this plan.  She was "lent" at age 14 to Armistead's son Robert and was brought with his family to Hillsborough at age 17, where she worked and lived for seven sometimes painful and difficult years.  Her hardships included bearing a son to a white Hillsborough man who forced himself on her.  But by 1855 Lizzie Hobbs had earned her freedom, married a man named James Keckly, and was on her way to establishing a life as a successful dressmaker.  By 1862 she was a trusted confidante of First Lady Mary Lincoln and a frequent visitor to the White House.  And there is even more to her story.  


To mark the 200th anniversary of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly’s birth, the Burwell School Historic Site offers a year-long series of events.

We have invited historians to detail her life and times, dressmakers and quilters, actors and writers to examine the serious struggles and achievements of this remarkable woman,  who was a first a slave in the Burwell houseold, then -- through her own efforts -- a free woman, successful dressmaker, activist in support of freed slaves, and a participant in history as the trusted confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House -- all of whch she documents in her own autobiography. 

Please join us for the coming events:

Sunday, February 11, 3:00 PM
Co-sponsored by Dickerson Chapel AME Church
Dr. Reginald Hildebrand:   Elizabeth Keckly, African Methodism and the Meaning of Freedom, and
Beverly Payne:  The Payne Family of Hillsborough
Dickerson Chapel AME Church
100 East Queen St., Hillsborough

Bringing Elizabeth Keckly into Focus
Sunday, March 18, 2 - 5 PM
Two sessions (2:00 and 4:00)
Exhibits and receptions
Dr. Sylvia Hoffert and Mr. Steven Peck
Burwell School; free admission

NOTE:  space is limited.   You may reserve a space by emailing us at: Please leave your name.  Your seat will be held until 1:50 on the day of the program.

Interested in more information NOW?  Click here for a 2013 video from Smithsonian Magazine.   Click here to visit our Elizabgeth Keckly website page.

Elizabeth Keckly's Livelihood:
Featuring a replica of the Mary Lincoln Dress!

Saturday, June 2 10 AM - 4 pm
10:00 am -  Karen DeSombre, seamstress
and her replica of the Mary Lincoln Dress
followed by a hands-on session for all ages.

2:00 pm - Elizabeth R. Way, Assistant Curator
Fashion Institute of Technology
Burwell School; free admission

QUILTMAKING:  honoring Keckly's Lincoln Quilt
Quilt show by the African American Quilting Circle of Durham
Sunday, September 16
2:00 - Family - friendly session on quiltmaking
3:00 Opening reception honoring the quiltmakers and their work

Burwell School; free admission

October 13th, 20th and 21
A play depicting an imagined conversation
between Elizabeth Keckly and Anna Burwell,
by Maureen Quilligan and Michael Malone.
Directed by Francesca Talenti
with Jane Holding, Lilly Nelson, Brenda Stephens and Sara Stephens.
 Burwell School; tickets ae $20 and go on sale September 1.

SYMPOSIUM:  Elizabeth Keckly -
observed by scholars and writers

Saturday, November 10, 10:00 am - 3:00 pm
Keynote Speaker:  Dr. Jennifer Fleischner,
author of the 2003 biography,
Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly
Location TBD
Registration opens September 15

for Young Historians

Sunday,  November 10, 2:00 pm
Dr. Jennifer Fleischner, Adelphi University
Burwell School; free admission
Registration opens September 15

Learn more about Keckly





Our annual fundraiser!


May 5 is the date for our biggest fundraising event of the year!   It's our Spring Fling  - a garden party and fundraising auction.   Tickets are on sale now for the party of the year, all for a special cause.  Great food and drink, live music, and a beautiful historic setting in the glory of a Hillsborough spring day.

Come ready to find a treasure among the items in the silent and live auctions.  It's all great fun under the big tent on the front lawn, with music from the Jazztones and the Hillsborough Jazz Collective.  A few surprises await you too!

Tickets are $45 for individuals, or $400 for tables for eight, through Eventbrite.