Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker & Firsts On Firsts On Firsts

Hello Everyone!

We are in our last week of celebrating Black History Month!

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Name: Elizabeth Keckley

Dates: February 1818 – May 1907

What she did: Seamstress, civil activist, and author. (Also Mary Todd Lincoln’s BFF)

  • Born into slavery in February 1818, in Dinwiddie, Virginia, just south of Petersburg.
  • Her mother Agnes was a house slave owned by planter Armistead Burwell and his wife Mary.
  • Agnes did not tell her daughter her father’s identity until on her deathbed,  Elizabeth’s father was Agnes’ owner Armistead Burwell.
  • Agnes to marry George Pleasant Hobbs, a literate enslaved man who lived and worked at a neighbor’s home during Keckley’s early childhood. When Hobbs’ owner decided to move far away, he had to leave Agnes and Elizabeth.
  • Although they were never reunited, Agnes and George corresponded for many years.
  • Elizabeth lived in the Burwell house with her mother and began official duties when she was four years old.
    • She assigned to be the nursemaid for their infant Elizabeth Margaret and was punished if she failed to care properly for the baby.
    • One day she accidentally tipped the cradle over too far, causing the infant to roll onto the floor, and Mary Burwell beat her severely.
  • At the age of 14, in 1832, she was sent to live “on generous loan” to the eldest Burwell son Robert in Chesterfield County, Virginia, when he married Margaret Anna Robertson.
  • The family moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina, where Robert was a minister and operated the Burwell School for girls from his house, from 1837 to 1857.
  • Margaret enlisted neighbor William J. Bingham to help subdue the slave girl’s “stubborn pride”.
    • When Elizabeth was 18, Bingham called her to his quarters and ordered her to undress so that he could beat her. Keckley refused, saying she was fully grown, and “you shall not whip me unless you prove the stronger. Nobody has a right to whip me but my own master, and nobody shall do so if I can prevent it.”
    • Bingham bound her hands and beat her, then sent her back to her master with bleeding welts on her back. The next week, Bingham flogged her again until he was exhausted. Again Elizabeth was sent back to her master with bleeding welts upon her back.
    • A week later, Bingham flogged her again until he was exhausted, while she suppressed her tears and cries.
    • The next week, after yet another attempt to “break her”, Bingham had a change of heart, “burst[ing] into tears, and declar[ing] that it would be a sin” to beat her anymore.He asked for her forgiveness and said that he would not beat her again. Elizabeth claims that he kept his word.
  • At the same time, Alexander M. Kirkland, a prominent white man of the community, forced a sexual relationship on Elizabeth for four years of what she called “suffering and deep mortification”.
  • In 1839, she bore Kirkland’s son and named him George after her stepfather.
  • Afterward Elizabeth was returned to Virginia, where she served another member of the family, daughter Ann Burwell Garland and Garland’s husband, Hugh A. Garland. She was half-sister to Ann of course.
  • When the Garland family had financial difficulties, they sold some slave children and “hired out” others, collecting the fees of their wages.
  • Elizabeth and her mother remained with their mistress Ann Garland and her husband. Her sewing helped support the family.
  • The Garlands moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1847, taking Elizabeth and her mother with them to tend the children and do all the family sewing.
  • Nearly 12 years of living and working in St. Louis gave them the chance to mingle with its large free black population. She also established connections with women in the white community.
  • Elizabeth met her future husband James in St. Louis, but refused to marry him until she and her son were free.
    • When she asked Hugh A. Garland to free them and he refused, she worked for two years to persuade him, agreeing to purchase her freedom. In 1852, he agreed to release them for $1,200.
    • With her patrons’ help, she collected the money to buy her and her son’s freedom and was manumitted in November 1855.
    • She stayed in St. Louis until she had earned enough to repay her patrons, as she had promised.
  • In early 1860, she and her son moved to Baltimore, Maryland. She intended to run classes for young “colored women” to teach her system of cutting and fitting dresses.
  • But after six weeks she had hardly enough money to get to Washington, D.C., which she thought might offer better chances for work.
  • In mid-1860, Elizabeth intended to work as a seamstress in Washington, but lacked the money to pay for the required license as a free black to remain in the city for more than 30 days.
    • She appealed to her patrons. One of them, a woman by the name of Miss Ringold, used her connection to Mayor James G. Berret to petition for a license for her. Berret granted it to her free of charge.
  • Commissions for dresses were steadily coming in, but a dress that she completed for Mrs. Robert E. Lee sparked the business’s rapid growth. She found most of her work with society women by word-of-mouth recommendations.
  • Margaret McLean of Maryland, requested a dress said she needed it urgently. Elizabeth declined, until Mrs. McLean offered to introduce her to “the people in the White House”, the newly elected president Abraham Lincoln, and his wife.
  • Elizabeth met Mary Todd Lincoln on March 4, 1861, the day of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration.
    • As she was preparing for the day’s events, Mrs. Lincoln asked her to return the next day for an interview.
    • When she arrived, she found other women there to be interviewed as well, but Mrs. Lincoln chose her as her personal modiste.
  • In addition to dressmaking, she assisted Mrs. Lincoln each day as her personal dresser. She also helped Mrs. Lincoln prepare for official receptions and other social events.
    • For the next six years, she became an intimate witness to the private life of the First Family.
  • During the Lincoln administration (and many years afterward), ELizabeth was the sole designer and creator of Mary Todd Lincoln’s event wardrobe.
  • In August 1862, Elizabeth founded the Contraband Relief Association (CRA), receiving donations from both Lincolns, as well as other white patrons and well-to-do free blacks.
    • The organization changed its name in July 1864 to the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldier’s Relief Association, to “reflect its expanded mission” after blacks started serving in the United States Colored Troops.
    • The CRA provided food, shelter, clothing, and emotional support to recently freed slaves and/or sick and wounded soldiers.
  • Elizabeth wrote about the contrabands in Washington, D.C. in her autobiography.
    • She said that ex-slaves were not going to find “flowery paths, days of perpetual sunshine, and bowers hanging with golden fruit” in Washington D.C., but that” the road was rugged and full of thorns.” She saw that “[their] appeal for help too often was answered by cold neglect.”
  • The CRA used the independent black churches for meetings and events. The organization held fundraisers, with concerts, speeches, dramatic readings, and festivals.
  • The CRA distributed clothes, food, and shelter among the freedmen and sent funds to many. They hosted Christmas dinners for sick and wounded soldiers.
  • Elizabeth’s son, George Kirkland, who was more than three-quarters white, enlisted as a white in the Union Army in 1861 after the war broke out. He was killed in action on August 10, 1861.
  • Elizabeth also comforted the First Lady after the President Lincoln’s assassination. Mrs. Lincoln became secluded, allowing only a few into her quarters.
    • Mrs. Lincoln gave away many of her husband’s personal items to people close to her. Elizabeth acquired Mary Lincoln’s blood-spattered cloak and bonnet from the night of the assassination, as well as some of the President’s personal grooming items.
  • Mrs. Lincoln insisted that she accompany her to Chicago to assist her in her new life and myriad affairs. Roughly one month after the assassination, they boarded a train en route to Chicago.
    • She spent about three weeks with Mrs. Lincoln, as she needed to return to the capital to take care of her business. Mary Lincoln grew more dependent upon her, writing her frequently, asking for visits, and lamenting her new conditions. This period was critical to their later friendship.
  • In 1867 Mrs. Lincoln, who was deeply in debt because of extravagant spending, wrote to Elizabeth, asking for help in disposing of articles of value, including old clothes, by accompanying her to New York to find a broker to handle the sales.
    • In late September, they arrived in New York, where Mrs. Lincoln used an alias for the duration of her visit. The fund raising effort became publicly known, and Mrs. Lincoln was severely criticized for selling clothes and other items associated with her husband’s presidency.
  • Elizabeth donated her Lincoln memorabilia to Wilberforce College for its sale in fundraising to rebuild after a fire in 1865. Mrs. Lincoln was angry about her action, so she changed her original intention to have the articles publicly displayed for fees in Europe.
  • In 1868, Elizabeth Keckley published Behind the Scenes, to “attempt to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world” and to “explain the motives” that guided Mrs. Lincoln’s decisions regarding what became known as the “old clothes scandal”.
    • She described her own rise from slavery to life as a middle-class businesswoman who employed staff to help complete her projects. She was claiming a part in the educated, mixed-race middle class of the black community.
    • She emphasized her ability to overcome difficulties and the development of her business sense. While acknowledging the brutalities under slavery and the sexual abuse that led to the birth of her son George, she spent little time on those events.
    • This was in contrast to other women’s slave narratives, in which they revealed white men taking sexual advantage of them.
    • Essentially she “veiled” her own past but, using alternating chapters, contrasted her life with that of Mary Todd Lincoln and “unveiled” the former First Lady, as she noted her debts.
    • The editor included letters from Mary Lincoln to Elizabeth in the book, and the seamstress was strongly criticized for violating Mrs. Lincoln’s privacy.
    • At a time when the white middle class struggled over “genteel performance”, Keckley unveiled a white woman by the very title of her book, showing what went on behind the public scenes and revealing “private, domestic information involving, primarily, white women.”
    • People felt as if she, an African American and former slave, had transgressed the boundaries that the middle class tried to maintain between public and private life.
    • Stunned and dismayed by the negative publicity, Keckley wrote letters to newspaper editors and defended her serious intentions, which was part of the model of gentility.
    • The uproar over the book subsided, but it did not sell well.
  • Mrs. Lincoln felt betrayed and extremely disturbed by the work’s public disclosure of private conversations and letters that were written to Elizabeth. Elizabethexplained that she too had been betrayed; James Redpath violated her trust by printing the letters he asked her to “lend” him, as he promised not to disclose them and had not gained her consent for publication.
  • The now-destitute former First Lady permanently severed contact with her.
  • Elizabeth continued to attempt to earn money by sewing and teaching young women her techniques, and much of her white clientele stopped calling.
  • In 1890, when she was 72, she made a drastic decision: to sell the Lincoln articles, which she had kept for 35 years.
  • In the years following, she moved frequently, but in 1892, she was offered a faculty position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts and moved to Ohio.
  • Within a year, she organized a dress exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair.
  • By the late 1890s, she returned to Washington, where she lived in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children (an institution established in part by funds contributed by the Contraband Association that she founded), presumably for health reasons.
  • In her later years, Keckley led a quiet and secluded life. She suffered from headaches and crying spells.
    • She had the First Lady’s photograph hung on the wall of her room and told friends that Mrs. Lincoln had contacted her, and they became reconciled some time after her book’s publication. (Unknown if true, but totally Herstory head-cannon)
  • In May 1907, Mrs. Keckley died as a resident of the National Home. She was interred at Columbian Harmony Cemetery.
  • In 1960, her remains were transferred to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland, when Columbian Harmony closed and the land was sold.
  • A historic plaque installed across the street from the site of the former home commemorates her life. Jennifer Fleischer wrote:

Perhaps the most poignant illustration of the different fates of these two women is found in their final resting places. While Mary Lincoln lies buried in Springfield in a vault with her husband and sons, Elizabeth Keckley’s remains have disappeared. In the 1960s, a developer paved over the Harmony Cemetery in Washington where Lizzy was buried, and when the graves were moved to a new cemetery, her unclaimed remains were placed in an unmarked grave—like those of her mother, slave father, and son.

Legacy and honors

  • The dress that Keckley designed for Mary Todd Lincoln to wear at her husband’s second inauguration ceremony and reception is held by the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.
  • Elizabeth designed a quilt made from scraps of materials left over from dresses she made for Mrs. Lincoln. It is held by the Kent State University Museum and is shown in the book, The Threads of Time, The Fabric of History (2007), by Rosemary E. Reed Miller.
  • On December 12, 2018, The New York Times published an obituary for Elizabeth, as a part of their Overlooked series of stories of remarkable individuals whose deaths went unreported by the newspaper.

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Name: Eunice Carter

Dates: July 16th, 1899 – January 25th, 1970

What she did: Lawyer

  • Eunice was born in Atlanta, GA on July 16th, 1899.
  • Though Eunice grew up in Atlanta, her family fled to Brooklyn, New York after the 1906 Atlanta Race Riots.
  • Eunice attended local schools and then attended Smith College in Northhampton, MA, graduating with her Bachelor’s and then her Master’s degree.
  • After graduating, she worked as a social worker in New York and New Jersey in the 1920s before turning her sites to law.
  • She received her law degree from Fordham University in New York City making her the first black woman to receive a law degree from the university! She passed the Bar in 1933.
  • Eunice was a talented lawyer, having had stated her own practice, and drew the attention of Prosecutor Thomas Dewey and then New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
  • Mayor La Guardia and Dewey were assembling a team to take a bite out of organized crime.
  • They hired Eunice to work in Harlem, which was a predominantly black community. This made her the FIRST black assistant district attorney in New York and she was the only black woman on Dewey’s staff.
    • According to one historian, Dewey was impressed with “her command of Harlem pool halls as well as Albany committee rooms.”
  • A little about Thomas Dewey; he was a big shot prosecutor who made a career out of nailing mobsters including Waxey Gordon and Dutch Shultz, which crippled his operations. 
  • Despite these successes, one big fish eluded the police; Mafia kingpin Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
  • As assistant district attorney, Eunice found most of the cases she was prosecuting were prostitution cases. In these cases she noticed a pattern. Many of the sex workers were being represented by the same lawyers and bondsmen and had similar alibis or stories to get themselves acquitted.
  • Eunice reasoned that the mob was involved with the sex workers and were helping them when they were arrested.
  • Eunice correctly deduced that Lucky Luciano’s mob was running a prostitution ring and took 50% of each woman’s earnings in exchange for protection from the law.
  • Eunice worked to assemble a massive case against Lucky Luciano. Dewey was eager to nail Luciano and ordered raids on local brothels and arrested 100 sex workers. Many of them agreed to testify in regards to the mob’s prostitution ring, supporting Eunice’s case. 
  • Dewey and Eunice brought the case against Lucky Luciano and also stuck him with the mobster’s greatest enemy- TAX EVASION. They noticed that Luciano was living a pretty plush lifestyle despite only reporting an income of $22,500 on his tax returns. 
  • The trial was a sensation.
  • He was found Guilty! In a landmark ruling, Lucky Luciano was sentenced to 30-40 years in prison (though he was paroled in 1946 and deported to Italy.) 
  • This was one of the most successful court actions against organized crime in our country’s history, hurting Luciano’s continued illegal shenanigans and his political corruption. 
  • Dewey promoted her to head his Special Sessions Bureau which handled all cases in the municipal court (so anything involving New York City law.) 
  • In the 1920s, Eunice was active in the Pan-African Congress which was a series of 8 meetings from 1919 to 2014 which were held to address issues that African countries were/are facing as a result of European colonization.
  • At some point, she married Lisle Carter, Sr. who was one of the first black dentists in New York! Their only child Lisle Carter, Jr. followed in his mother’s footsteps and graduated from law school and would later work in the JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson presidential administrations. 
  • Eunice headed the Special Sessions Bureau until 1945.
  • After she retired from the bureau, she didn’t slow down. She worked as a private attorney, advised the United Nations on women’s rights, worked for the National Council of Negro Women, and served as a national board member for the YMCA.
  • She died on January 25th, 1970 at the age of 70.


  • One of Lisle’s children, Stephen L. Carter became a Yale Law professor and wrote a biography about Eunice Carter entitled Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster which was just published in 2018!
  • Eunice Carter was living an amazing life that many might not expect from a black woman in the early 1900s. She was a lawyer, working in New York City, who helped to take down a major mob boss. In fact, it was so hard to image for some people that when the show Boardwalk Empire featured a character loosely based on Eunice, viewers called it a pathetic attempt at forced diversity and trying to appeal to PC culture because there was no way it could be realistic. 

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