Women in History DowntownDC Callbox Tour: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Dressmaker, 1818-1907

Born into slavery in Virginia, Elizabeth Hobbs learned to sew from her mother. She became so skilled that her owners hired her out to other families, pocketing the money she earned. By 1855 she’d managed to borrow enough funds from her clients to purchase her own and her son George’s freedom, and in 1860 they moved to Washington. Although she had married a man named James Keckley in Virginia, she couldn’t afford to buy his freedom, too, so he remained behind.

She set up a dressmaking business in a series of rented rooms in this area, including at nearby 1509 L Street. Known for clean lines, expert fitting, and the ability to follow popular European styles, Keckley gained a number of prominent women as her clients. Among them was Mary Todd Lincoln, who also became a close friend. Keckley spent considerable time at the White House, where she and the first lady shared their grief after each lost a son to death. When President Lincoln was assassinated, Keckley was the first friend Mary Lincoln called.

Also a philanthropist, Keckley helped found organizations to assist formerly enslaved people, including the Contraband Relief Organization and the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.

In 1868, Keckley published a memoir that discussed the Lincolns. Although it apparently was intended to help raise money for the former first lady and defend her against criticism, the project backfired: the former first lady ended their friendship. Keckley continued working and also trained other seamstresses. In 1892 she left Washington to teach at Wilberforce University in Ohio but returned when her health started to fail. She ended her days in the Home she’d helped found, by then located on Euclid Street NW, near Howard University.

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