Elizabeth Keckly’s story and memoir are the focus of a symposium this Saturday, titled “Behind the Scenes: Constructing the Narrative,” at the Richard Whitted Building at 300 W.Tryon St. in Hillsborough. Distinguished scholars will address the forces that shaped Keckly’s life and narrative.
Lizzy Hobbs – who later achieved fame as Elizabeth Keckly – spent perhaps the most unhappy years of her life in Hillsborough in the late 1830’s. Born into slavery, the teenager had been brought to Hillsborough to work in the household of Rev. Robert Burwell and his wife Anna.
Robert was the new minister of the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church and Anna – mother of a rapidly growing family – was establishing a girls’ academy in their home on Union Street, inside the building known today as the Burwell School Historic Site.
Lizzy’s workload must have been great. Add to that a troubled relationship with Anna Burwell, several episodes of harsh beatings, and sexual assault by a local white merchant, which resulted in the birth of a son. She left Hillsborough in the early 1840’s with her young son.
Fast forward 30 years, and that determined young woman, now known by her married name, Elizabeth Keckly, was free – through her own efforts – and a successful Washington, D.C. dressmaker whose clients included Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mary Lincoln, the First Lady.
To add to her accomplishments, Keckly wrote and published her life story in 1868 – a memoir still in print today. The latest edition of “Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House” was published in 2016 by local Eno Publishers, of Hillsborough. Her opening words were: “My life has been an eventful one.”
The project is made possible by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Keynote Address will be delivered by Dr. Jennifer Fleischner, of Adelphi University, who wrote the distinguished 2003 biography, “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly.” She will be joined by Dr. William L. Andrews of UNC-Chapel Hill; Dr. Frances S. Foster, Emory University (retired); and Dr. Sylvia Hoffert, Texas A&M University (retired). Each has a stellar history of research, publication, teaching and leadership in their fields.
“We are honored to welcome these remarkable and distinguished scholars and authors to Hillsborough,” said Steve Peck, Chair of the Historic Hillsborough Commission, which operates the Burwell School Historic Site and is hosting the symposium. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
All are welcome and encouraged to attend, including teachers, book clubs, students, scholars, and anyone with an interest in African American and womens’ history. The registration cost is $20 and includes a box lunch for those who pre-register. Ronda Tucker, Site Manager for the Burwell School, noted that pre-registration is recommended in order to reserve a lunch.