Elizabeth Keckley was a former slave who became a seamstress and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House. She spent much of her early life working towards gaining or earning her freedom from slavery. In 1855, she saved enough money to buy her and her son’s freedom. In the early 1860s, she moved to the Washington DC area and began teaching classes on dress making. She petitioned for a license to remain in Washington as a free black woman and was granted the license by the help of friends and patrons. She quickly began growing her business and found early success with high profile clients.
Following this early success, Keckley embarked on a relationship with first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. Not only did Keckley serve as a dress maker, she worked with Lincoln on a daily basis for style tips with Lincoln keeping her busy as her love of fashion grew and changed. Their relationship extended beyond their love of clothing and design, and Keckley and Lincoln became close confidants.
In 1862, Keckley founded the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862, after receiving donations from the Lincolns and leading citizens, including other free people of color. The CRA provided food, shelter, clothing, and emotional support to recently freed slaves and sick and wounded soldiers.
She remained a close friend of Lincoln’s throughout much of the rest of her life, though the two eventually became estranged. In 1892 she accepted a position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts. Keckley passed away in 1907 after a life of change and influence.