Sewing a New Life

Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave. Her mother taught her how to sew and this became Elizabeth’s ultimate path out of slavery. Throughout her early years and through her teens, Elizabeth was sent from slave owner to slave owner. She was severely beaten and raped. She became pregnant by one of the owners. She was ultimately returned to her original owners where she was valued for her sewing skills. She worked long hours sewing for other families. The money paid for her work went to her owner.

It took Elizabeth two years for her owner to allow her to buy her way out of slavery along with her son. A supporter loaned her the money so she could be free. After paying off the loan, she relocated to Washington DC at the onset of the Civil War and became well known for her sewing skills. Varina Davis, the wife of the President of the Confederate States, was one of her first regular customers. But it was when she became the personal dress maker for Mary Todd Lincoln that Elizabeth reached the pinnacle of her trade.

Elizabeth became so successful that she set up a business to handle the demand. Using her own story as a guide, she trained and hired African American women for her business. When slaves were freed, Elizabeth was used as an example of how former slaves could lead successful lives in freedom. She also created an organization to support newly freed slaves. She was successful in raising funds to support former slaves who were struggling to survive. President Lincoln and other prominent abolitionists contributed money.

Elizabeth became very close to the Lincoln family and told of this experience in a book. This led to a falling out with Mary Todd Lincoln after the assassination. She left Washington DC to teach her trade at Wilberforce University. She died at the age of 89 at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children which she helped form. Her remains disappeared for 103 years until a marker was erected at her grave site.

Hidden heroes often have a resistance that is extraordinary. Imagine what Elizabeth Keckley had to endure before she became a success. But this experience was also influential in comforting Abraham Lincoln during the darkest days of the Civil War. Her story and her calm manner helped the President be assured that he was doing the right thing.

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“My mom taught me how to sew when I was 2 or 3, so I’ve been sewing for as long as I can remember.” – Serena Williams (Tennis great)

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