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October 6, 2022
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BLACK CREATORS

Elizabeth Keckley

Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House was published in 1868 by Elizabeth (Lizzy) Hobbs Keckly (sometimes written Keckley).
This fascinating story detailed Elizabeth’s life experiences, from slavery to her successful career as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, in this revealing narrative. The book was divisive at the time of its publication. It ruined both women’s reputations and harmed her close relationship with Mrs. Lincoln. Although, at the time of publishing, the American public was not ready to read the story of a free Black woman taking control of her own life narrative.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly was born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, in February 1818. Her delivery was complicated by a number of factors. Colonel Armistead Burwell’s wife, Mary, was pregnant with the couple’s tenth child during the spring of 1817, and an enslaved woman named Agnes (Aggy) Hobbs became pregnant by Colonel Burwell. Although the circumstances surrounding this pregnancy and the nature of Aggy and Burwell’s connection are unknown, the pregnancy is most likely the product of rape or a non-consensual encounter.
Elizabeth Hobbs was born a slave, despite her parents’ intentions. George Pleasant Hobbs, Aggy’s spouse, was an enslaved man who worked on a nearby plantation. Despite the fact that Agnes and Elizabeth were not his children, George remained dedicated to them. Elizabeth grew up in a household with other enslaved children and helped her mother with her work as a domestic worker. The Burwells placed a high importance on Aggy. The Burwell children adored her, and she was even allowed to read and write by the family. Aggy also taught her daughter how to sew garments for the household.
Elizabeth’s first responsibility as an enslaved five-year-old kid, according to her, was to look after Burwell’s infant daughter, also called Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth was moved to North Carolina when she was fourteen years old to work for Burwell’s son Robert and his new wife. Because Robert was a Presbyterian preacher who didn’t make much money, Elizabeth was their only enslaved servant at first.
She didn’t have great memories of her time there. Elizabeth was violently whipped, frequently for no apparent reason.
Beginning in 1838, she was raped on many occasions by local white store owner Alexander McKenzie Kirkland.
One of these rapes ended in a pregnancy and the birth of her only child, George, who was named after the guy she thought was her father, George Hobbs. Her statements regarding his birth indicate the intense anguish she felt as a result of her ordeal.

Elizabeth became a tremendously successful businesswoman as a result of the Garland’s connections to white society and her ability to successfully promote and network her firm. She spent twelve years working in St. Louis. It was there that she first drew the attention of Mary Lincoln, a white woman from the Midwest.

When Elizabeth returned to Virginia in 1842, her agonizing time in North Carolina came to an end. Elizabeth and her son were transferred to live with her old mistress, Mary, and her daughter and son-in-law, Anne and Hugh A. Garland, after Armistead Burwell died. She was reunited with her mother at this moment. Hugh Garland was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1845 due to financial difficulties, and he put all of his property, including his enslaved people, up as collateral against his debts. Garland left for St. Louis, Missouri in search of a new chance in 1846, and the rest of the family, including Agnes and Elizabeth, followed a year later.

Elizabeth chose to divorce her spouse after gaining her freedom. She worked as a seamstress in St. Louis for several years, accumulating money to repay the loans she had taken out to buy her freedom. Her mother passed away during this time. Aggy had relocated to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to join other Burwell family members. Elizabeth left St. Louis in the spring of 1860 after settling her debts and traveled to Washington, D.C. She needed a work permit and had to find a white person who could vouch for her status as a free woman.

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