By: Laura Spears
The world recently re-discovered the remarkable Elizabeth Keckley. She has been a featured character in movies, plays and books. This new interest in Elizabeth (known as Lizzie) as a historical figure is understandable. After all, it is no small accomplishment for a woman born a slave to become Washington D.C.’s most sought after dressmaker, a business owner, the president of a humanitarian organization, and a published author.
In the summer of 1862, Lizzie and a friend were out for an evening walk and observed a white family giving a party for the benefit of wounded soldiers. “This suggested an idea to me,” wrote Lizzie. “If the white people can give festivals to raise funds for the relief of suffering soldiers, why should not the well-to-do colored people go to work to do something for the benefit of the suffering blacks?” The following Sunday, Lizzie announced her plan to her church. Within two weeks, she had founded the Contraband Relief Association. With forty other women she raised money to provide food, shelter, clothing, and medical care to the 40,000 escaped slaves and injured black Union soldiers who had come to the Washington D.C. area seeking asylum. Her travels with Mary Lincoln allowed her the opportunity to raise additional funds in New York, and found a branch society in Boston.
Lizzie’s life highlights the complexity of race relations in the mid nineteenth century. Her biological parents were an enslaved black woman and a white plantation owner. Lizzie lived the first 34 years of her life in involuntary servitude to her own family, before she purchased her own freedom. It was then that she moved to Washington D.C. where Mary Lincoln hired Lizzie as a dressmaker. They became so close that Lizzie was the first person Mary sent for the night her husband was assassinated. After his death, Mary gave Lizzie the brush that she frequently used to comb the President’s hair. Indeed, Lizzie lived her life in a grey area, as a sister/slave, and then a Negro employee who became a close friend.
Despite her close relationship to the Lincoln family, Lizzie only requested a social invitation to The White House on one occasion. On April 11, 1865, Lincoln delivered a speech from a second story window of The White House. The President had been called upon to speak immediately following the surrender of the Confederacy days before, but he declined, and promised to speak on this particular evening. Lizzie asked Mary if she might attend, and bring a friend, and Mary consented. The bonnet I have made is designed for this visit to the White House. Read the rest of this entry »