Monday, June 15, 2015

Elizabeth Keckley's Dinwiddie County


Driving south from Petersburg on Boydton Plank Road (US Hwy. 1) in Dinwiddie County several highway markers are encountered on either side of the road. Most of them reference the various Civil War actions that happened along this important supply route into the Cockade City in 1864 and 1865.

However, just south of the town of Dewitt, but before reaching McKinney, a marker sits on the left side of the road and almost on the bank of Sappony Creek which tells the fascinating tale of a mixed race woman who lifted herself from the slave quarter to the White House. Her story is an inspiration for the hard working individual.

Elizabeth Keckley was born to her mother, a slave, and her white master father, Armistead Burwell, in 1818 on Burwell's Dinwiddie County, Virginia plantation. Burwell's wife, likely resentful of Elizabeth's existence, beat young Elizabeth on a number of occasions.

In 1832, as a teenager, Elizabeth was loaned to Armistead Burwell's son Robert, who lived in Chesterfield County. A move to Prince Edward County, where Robert worked for Hampden-Sydney College, and then to Hillsboro, North Carolina, brought Elizabeth a ton of grief, but also widened her world view.

In Hillsboro, Elizabeth became pregnant by a local white man. She named her light complexioned son George. Her years in Hillsboro came to an end when Elizabeth and George were sent to St. Louis to serve a Burwell daughter. In St. Louis Elizabeth was able to earn enough money working as a seamstress to buy her and George's freedom in 1855.


In 1860, Elizabeth and George moved to Baltimore, Maryland, seeking better opportunities. Soon they moved on to Washington DC, where word quickly got out among the various politician's wives about Elizabeth's impressive seamstress skills. Soon she was covered in orders for her beautiful dresses.

Elizabeth met the new first lady Mary Lincoln on the president's inauguration day in 1861. After an interview, Elizabeth was hired to serve as fashion conscious Mary's dressmaker and dresser. During their time together Elizabeth and Mary formed an intriguing friendship. The women likely bonded over, among other things, their shared loss of sons. Keckley's son, George, passed as white and joined a Union Missouri unit, but was tragically killed at the Battle of Wilson's Creek in August 1861. Mary, of course, lost her son Willie while in the White House.

Keckley wrote a book of her life's experience in 1868, which strained her relationship with the ever-sensitive Mary Lincoln. Elizabeth died in 1907, in Washington DC, and was buried in a local cemetery. She was later re-interred in nearby Landover, Maryland.

Elizabeth Keckley's story of overcoming persecution and oppression by hard work and advancement is not all that unique among those whose lives spanned slavery and freedom, but her particular situation, going from slave to working in the Lincoln White House is one that should be better known. And, to think, that story started in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. 

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