I intended this to be one post but as I got writing, I realized that it would be entirely too long. I felt that leaving out big chunks of her story would be doing her a disservice so I’m breaking it up into two posts! (Find part two here!) If you’re unfamiliar with Elizabeth Keckley, you are in for a treat. Now enjoy the first part of Lizzie Keckley’s story…
Of her own life, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley wrote that it “has been an eventful one.” I believe that might be a bit of an understatement.
She was born into slavery at the Dinwiddie Courthouse in Virginia in 1818. Her parents as she knew them were Agnes and George Pleasant Hobbs, although one biographer asserts that her parents’ master, Colonel Burwell, was actually her father. Regardless, Lizzie wasn’t able to have a relationship with George, as he belonged to another man nearby. When Lizzie was a child, her family was permanently separated. For a time, George was permitted to visit Agnes and Lizzie at the Easter and Christmas holidays and at one point, it looked as though they’d be reunited. They weren’t though, and George was forced to move out west with his master. Of this, Lizzie wrote,
“The announcement fell upon the little circle in that rude-log cabin like a thunderbolt. I can remember the scene as if it were but yesterday;–how my father cried out against the cruel separation; his last kiss; his wild straining of my mother to his bosom; the solemn prayer to Heaven; the tears and sobs–the fearful anguish of broken hearts. The last kiss, the last good-by; and he, my father, was gone, gone forever.”
George and Agnes were literate in a time when enslaved people were prohibited from learning to read and write. After George was taken west, they never saw each other again but they did exchange letters. In one letter, George wrote, “Tell my darling little Lizzie to be a good girl, and to learn her book. Kiss her for me, and tell her that I will come to see her some day.”
Did your heart just break? Because mine did.
Lizzie never saw her dad again.
Elizabeth Keckley in North Carolina
When she was 14, she was loaned to her master’s son, a minister with a “helpless” wife. Four years later, she moved with the couple from Virginia to Hillsboro (now Hillsborough), North Carolina. It was in Hillsboro that she endured four years of rape and assault by a man she chose not to name. This led to her becoming pregnant with her only child, a son she would name George. Of this, she wrote, “If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.”
Sometime later, Lizzie doesn’t provide specifics here, she returned to Virginia with her former master’s daughter and her (the daughter’s) husband, Mr. Garland. Although she was still enslaved, leaving North Carolina was a relief to her.
Elizabeth Keckley in St. Louis
Mr. Garland struggled in Virginia and moved his family to St. Louis. You can’t run from your troubles, though, and the family continued to struggle in their new city. His financial situation was so dire that Lizzie wrote that he was unable to pay the dues on a letter addressed to him. In order to better their situation, Mr. Garland proposed that Lizzie’s mother be placed “out at service.” I am unsure, but I believe this means that she was to be loaned to another family for a fee, essentially rented out, as awful as that sounds.Regardless, Lizzie was not having it. “I would rather work my fingers to the bone, bend over my sewing till the film of blindness gathered in my eyes; nay, even beg from street to street,” she wrote in her autobiography.
Lizzie Becomes the Breadwinner
Mr. Garland gave Lizzie permission to find a solution herself. She was a talented seamstress and soon found herself with all of the dress-making work she could handle. She was a master at fitting bodices and could apparently drape fabric like nobody’s business. When word of her skills got out to the society ladies of St. Louis, she made enough money to support seventeen people for two years and five months. She was one woman supporting seventeen people for over two years. As is expected, the heavy workload and stress of supporting that many people began to take its toll. Lizzie’s health began to decline. It was about this time that Mr. James Keckley, a man she met years earlier in Virginia, came to St. Louis and proposed marriage. She didn’t even consider it. She didn’t want to bring more children into slavery and although she loved George very much, she struggled with the fact that he was born by no will of her own, into slavery.
Lizzie Buys Her Freedom
It was 1852 and Lizzie decided to ask for permission to buy freedom for herself and George. When she approached Mr. Garland, he gave her money for a ferry ride across the Mississippi. If they crossed the river, they’d be free. Lizzie was insulted. She had crossed the river many times and could have just run away. She wanted it to be official. Without papers, she and her son could be captured and returned to slavery at any time. After consideration, Mr. Garland agreed to take $1200 in exchange for freedom for Lizzie and George.
Now that she was free, she agreed to marry James. Things quickly soured in the marriage, however. James told Lizzie he was a free man. He was not. He was enslaved. Lizzie continued to work to support George, James (which she referred to as a “burden instead of a helpmate”), and the Garland family. She had bought her freedom but she was still enslaved. Due to the strain of supporting even more people than before, she was unable to save the money to purchase her freedom for the second time.
Around this time, Mr. Garland died and Mr. Burwell came to settle Mr. Garland’s estate. Burwell decided that Lizzie should be free and helped her to raise the money necessary to pay for freedom. I think he could have just freed her but…anyway. The plan was for Lizzie to go to New York and plead for money. Before she left, though, one of her patrons, Ms. Le Bourgois decided that she and the rest of the society ladies should pay for Lizzie’s freedom. Ms. Le Bourgois put up $100 and appealed to the other women to pitch in. Soon they had raised the $1200 needed for Lizzie and George. They were free, this time for good.
Of regaining her freedom, Lizzie wrote, “Free! the earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy. Yes, free! free by the laws of man and the smile of God–and Heaven bless them who made me so!”
For part two of Lizzie’s story, click here!
These two posts were inspired by this shirt I got from a really awesome little company called Historical Dream. I think it’s the most comfortable shirt I own and I already have my eye on their Harriet Tubman dolman top!
Sources (contains affiliate links)
Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, And Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (free in website format here or .99 Kindle version here)
Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs at American National Biography Online
Elizabeth Keckley at the Virginia Historical Society
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley at the Burwell School Historic Site
30 Years A Slave, 4 Years In The White House on WUNC, North Carolina Public Radio by Anita Rao and Frank Stasio
The History Chicks Episode 72, Elizabeth Keckley