Elizabeth (Lizzie) Hobbs Keckley through perseverance and an enduring belief in her own self-worth survived the horrors of slavery to be counted among the ranks of African American leaders of her time and found the Contraband Relief Association in Washington, DC. Her rise from the dehumanizing abuse and attitudes of enforced servitude to become the confidante to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was recounted in her memoirs “Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and four years in the White House”.
Born in 1818 in Dinwiddie Court-house, Virginia she learned early in life the unjust cruelties of slavery. She relates in her memoirs the hardship of seeing her mother wait for days to see her son return, when in fact he had been sold away.
In 1862, Washington, DC saw an increase in the number of recently freed men, women and children or “Contraband” as they were called. Most of the newly freed population only possessed agrarian skills, not in great demand in the urban environment of 19th century Washington, DC. Mrs. Keckley saw the “Poor dusky children of slavery…” arrive in droves to the city full of anticipation and hope borne of their new freedom. For most, the hope was short-lived as the citizens of Washington viewed them as helpless, idle and dependent.
After happening upon a festival at the home of one of Washington’s prominent matrons given to benefit the sick and wounded soldiers in the city; Mrs. Keckley thought that the same type of event could benefit the suffering blacks she saw along the streets of Washington. Within a week she was canvassing local black churches. By the second week, Mrs. Keckley organized “the Contraband Relief Association” with forty working members. Within a few months she had secured her first subscription from Mary Todd Lincoln of $200, when she was asked to visit Mrs. Lincoln in New York. (Elizabeth Hobbs, 2006) During this period Elizabeth Keckley also opened a sewing school for girls in Baltimore, MD.
Elizabeth Keckley exhibited this sense of purpose and determination earlier in her life while she sewed in dismal surroundings to earn enough money to purchase freedom for herself and her son George. She displayed it also when she fought back against her abusive slave owners and their associates, refusing to be beaten when she had not committed any perceived infraction.
The schism that would erode the relationship between Elizabeth Keckley and the former First Lady began in 1868, while the former worked as a sewing instructor at Wilberforce University. Mrs. Keckley presented the dress worn by Mrs. Lincoln on the night her husband was assassinated to the University. Wilberforce, without Mrs. Keckley’s permission, used the dress for a European tour. A few months later Mrs. Keckley published her memoirs and further incurred the wrath of both Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Robert, who used his influence to have the memoirs removed from publication. Mrs. Keckley continued her association with Wilberforce until 1898, when she returned to Washington, DC. She was active as founder and resident of the Home for Destitute Women and Children, where she died in 1907 at the age of 88 of a paralytic stroke.