Elizabeth Keckly: “Thirty Years a Slave” to White House Dressmaker


Illustration of Elizabeth Keckly (1818 - 1907) featured in her memoirs Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House published in 1868. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

This week we explore the incredible story of Elizabeth Keckly, an enslaved woman who bought her freedom and went on to become the premiere dressmaker in Washington D.C. during the Civil War era. Her best friend and client? Mary Todd Lincoln.

Additional Reading

  • Fleischner, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.
  • Keckly, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1868
  • Reynolds, Virginia. "Slaves to Fashion, Not Society: Elizabeth Keckly and Washington, D.C.'s African American Dressmakers, 1860–1870." Washington History 26, no. 2 (2014): 4-17.
  • Way, Elizabeth. “Elizabeth Keckly and Ann Lowe: Recovering an African American Fashion Legacy That Clothed the American Elite.” Fashion Theory 19, no. 1 (2015): 115-141.