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Theresa Vara-Dannen

seamstress, washerwoman, and founder of a New Haven home for the indigent, first appears in public records as a resident of New Haven, Connecticut in a City Directory in 1848. Nothing is known for certain about her birthplace or her parentage. In 1848 she was listed simply as “Miss Hannah Gray, col’d,” of 5 Winter Street.” In 1850, she was boarding with two white women, but on the census form, her place of birth seems to be deliberately illegible.

Although little is known about her origins, it is clear that she saved money and generously supported Connecticut's Underground Railroad and “poor strangers from slavery” (Black Women of Connecticut, p. 31) seeking freedom. The Yale University Divinity School community patronized her laundry and sewing business. Over time she saved enough to purchase a modest four-room home at 158 Dixwell Avenue in New Haven. In the 1860 ...

Article

Leyla Keough

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, to Agnes, a slave of the Burgwell family, and George Pleasant, who was owned by a man named Hobbs. When Elizabeth was in her teens, the Burgwells sold her to a slaveowner in North Carolina by whom she was raped and had one child, George. Shortly thereafter, a Burgwell daughter, Anne Burgwell Garland, bought Elizabeth and her son. They were taken to St. Louis, where Elizabeth married James Keckley. She later found he had deceived her by claiming to be a free man, and the couple separated.

To support her owner's household, Keckley worked as a seamstress. She acquired many loyal customers, one of whom loaned Keckley $1,200 to buy her freedom in 1855. In 1860, Keckley relocated to Baltimore, Maryland, and then to Washington D C where she opened a successful ...

Article

Anne Bradford Warner

Elizabeth Keckley became a center of public controversy with the 1868 publication of Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.

Born a slave in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, Keckley became such an accomplished seamstress that she was able to purchase her own freedom and her son's. After manumission she moved from St. Louis to establish herself in Washington, D. C., in 1860, becoming modiste first to the wife of Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis and finally to Mary Todd Lincoln during Abraham Lincoln's first term. Two-thirds of Behind the Scenes concerns Keckley's life with the Lincolns and the difficult period following the president's assassination, especially Mary Lincoln's desperate attempt to raise money through what became known as the “Old Clothes Scandal.” A misplaced trust in her editor, James Redpath and the sensationalist marketing of Carleton and Company culminated ...

Article

Rosemary Reed

Elizabeth Keckley used her needlework skills to purchase her freedom and went on to have such a flourishing business that she became dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. Fortunately for posterity, she also wrote a book about her life, her sewing work, and her experience as someone closely connected to the Lincoln White House. Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years as a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868) has been a source of historically significant information ever since.

Elizabeth was born Elizabeth Hobbs, the only child of a slave couple, Agnes and George Pleasant Hobbs, in Dinwiddie, Virginia Her mother was a housemaid and excellent seamstress owned by the Burwells a prominent family of central Virginia Her father lived on a neighboring farm and was allowed to visit his family twice a year until he was sold away from them As a ...

Article

Gertrude Woodruff Marlowe

Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs (1820?–26 May 1907), White House dressmaker during the Lincoln administration and author, was born in Dinwiddie Court House, Virginia, the daughter of George Pleasant and Agnes Hobbs, slaves. Her birth date is variously given from 1818 to 1824 based on different documents that report her age. The identity of her father is also uncertain; in later life Keckley reportedly claimed that her father was her master, Colonel A. Burwell. George Pleasant, who was owned by a different master, was allowed to visit only twice a year and was eventually taken west.

Elizabeth s life as a slave included harsh arbitrary beatings to subdue her stubborn pride frequent moves to work for often poor family members and being persecuted for four years by Alexander Kirkland a white man by whom she had a son Her life improved when she was loaned to a Burwell daughter ...

Article

Jennifer Fleischner

slave, dressmaker, abolitionist, and White House memoirist, was born Elizabeth Hobbs in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, the daughter of Armistead Burwell, a white slaveholder, and his slave Agnes Hobbs. Agnes was the family nurse and seamstress. Her husband, George Pleasant Hobbs, the slave of another man, treated “Lizzy” as his own daughter, and it was not until some years later, after George had been forced to move west with his master, that Agnes told Lizzy the identity of her biological father. While her mother taught her sewing, the skill that would make her name and fortune, it was George Hobbs who first instilled in Lizzy a profound respect for learning. Ironically, it was Armistead Burwell, who repeatedly told Lizzy she would never be “worth her salt,” who probably sparked her ambition to succeed and prove him wrong.

As a young girl Hobbs lived in ...

Article

Nancy T. Robinson

actress, seamstress, and model, was born Donessa Dorothy Van Engle in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City to Fred Van Engle, a tailor, and Mynita Duncan. Her mother was born in Massachusetts to Willis and Mabelle Duncan, with whom the family lived at the time of Van Engle's birth. Her father, Fred Van Engle, was born on the island of Saint Kitts and worked as a tailor.

Van Engle was born during the Harlem Renaissance and lived in the same apartment building as the boxer Jack Johnson and the actress Lena Horne with whom she was friends The Harlem Renaissance represented a creative boom and a period of recognition for African Americans in music art literature politics dance theater and business for those from and living in Harlem considered the cultural haven for African Americans In her Harlem neighborhood Van Engle mingled with ...