Fitting and Becoming

 

My illustration of a woman wearing a Civil War-era dress.


The Story of Elizabeth Keckley and Her Dressmaking, Wilberforce, Ohio 2022

By Anna Krejci

In 2022, we visited Central State University, formerly Wilberforce University.  My spouse and I wanted to visit this Historical Black College or University situated only a 20-minute drive from Yellow Springs, Ohio.  According to the Wilberforce University website, it is a liberal arts college that was established prior to the U.S. Civil War and is the oldest private HBCU managed and retained by African Americans.

On campus we visited the National Afro-American History Museum and Cultural Center.  At that time an exhibit called “Queens of the Heartland” informed about the accomplishments of notable African American women in Ohio – some with connections to the university. They were women who persevered through the Suffrage and Civil Rights Movements from the 1800s to recent times.  Some of the women lived part of their lives in slavery and bought their freedom before they could pursue education.

The displays were sobering, but important.  One of the women who taught at Wilberforce University was Elizabeth Keckley, who earlier had purchased her freedom from slavery with a loan that she repaid.  She sewed dresses for a living and made them for Mary Todd Lincoln, first lady of the United States married to President Abraham Lincoln.  The website, Ohio Memory, states that after the U.S. Civil War, Keckley was on faculty to teach her trade at Wilberforce University but soon experienced a stroke that left her unable to work. She suffered a decline in health and died in 1907.

For Keckley, dressmaking was a manner of establishing herself with her slave owners and of earning her own freedom.  In her memoir, Behind the Scenes, Keckley explains how she became free in 1855, prior to the U.S. Civil War.  I realized how Keckley made her way in life; she operated according to the framework in which she lived.  She secured her freedom while obeying slave-holding laws – even as oppressive and unjust as they were.

When I walked among the displays in the exhibit, I was most drawn to the one that discussed Keckley, since curators displayed an antique wedding dress.  There was so much to see at the exhibit, I might have overlooked the information about Keckley had it not been for the noticeable display of that dress.  I love looking at dresses and imagining how I would look in them.  It makes an impression to think that Keckley went through much of life as a slave and still made the white women and men she encountered feel esteemed in their garments.  Why could not all Americans have seen the individual in Keckley, who was being denied human rights? She transformed those fabrics into something fitting and becoming for other individuals.  Why did Keckley’s life have to be so hard?  Is the United States now a better, more equal and compassionate place for everyone, because former slaves like Keckley maneuvered around, sacrificed for, and persuaded their slave owners, to sell them their freedom?

We left the museum.  At home I read a copy of Keckley’s memoir.  As a free person, Keckley established clients in Washington, D.C., who recommended her to new customers for her dressmaking.  She knew statesmen and their wives.  She used her social connections to start the Contraband Relief Organization and raised money to help recently freed slaves.  Her resourcefulness was amazing.  She took assistance at times, helped herself and aided others often. Her capabilities were truly amazing, as is her story.


About Our Trip to Yellow Springs

I enjoyed visiting the National Afro-American History Museum and Cultural Center as part of our Yellow Springs vacation.  Two years ago this month, we were in Yellow Springs, and the drive to Wilberforce to see the museum gave us enjoyable glimpses of the countryside.  It rained during part of our vacation, so visiting a museum was a perfect outing for that kind of weather.  We stayed overnight in Yellow Springs and enjoyed eating at the unique restaurants and browsing in the interesting stores.  When it was not raining, we enjoyed walking on the Little Miami Scenic Trail that passes through downtown Yellow Springs.  My spouse and I find that visiting college towns in Ohio tends to be exciting and educational.  Wilberforce houses two learning institutions: Wilberforce University and Central State University.  Yellow Springs is the site of Antioch College.  It is exciting to be near places of learning, and we are always on the hunt for centers on such campuses that are open to the public.


Works Cited

Central State University. “Our History and Traditions.” 2024,

https://www.centralstate.edu/about-csu/our-history-and-traditions#:~:text=In%201894%2C%20Young%20was%20the,University%2C%20now%20Central%20State%20University.&text=On%20April%203%2C%201974%2C%20Central,its%20campus%20were%20changed%20forever.

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Martino Fine Books, 2017, Eastford, CT.

Kupfer, Shannon. “Elizabeth Keckley’s ‘Behind the Scenes,’” Ohio Memory, 5 Jan. 2018, https://ohiomemory.ohiohistory.org/archives/3611 .

Wilberforce University. “About Wilberforce University.” Retrieved 31 March, 2024, https://wilberforce.edu/about-wilberforce/.



About the National Afro-American History Museum and Cultural Center

For more information about the museum, visit the following link.