Elizabeth Hobbs was born a slave in Virginia in 1818. She was the property of Colonel Burwell and she was put to work at the age of four: "Mrs. Burwell gave birth to a daughter, a sweet, black-eyed baby, my earliest and fondest pet. To take care of this baby was my first duty. True, I was but a child myself - only four years old - but I had been taught to rely upon myself, and to prepare myself to render assistance to others."
In 1825 she witnessed a slave being sold for the first time in Prince Edward County: "We were living at Prince Edward, in Virginia, and master had just purchased his hogs for the winter, for which he was unable to pay in full. To escape from his embarrassment it was necessary to sell one of the slaves. Little Joe, the son of the cook, was selected as the victim. His mother was ordered to dress him up in his Sunday clothes, and send him to the house. He came in with a bright face, was placed in the scales, and was sold, like the hogs, at so much per pound. His mother was kept in ignorance of the transaction, but her suspicions were aroused. When her son started for Petersburgh in the wagon, the truth began to dawn upon her mind, and she pleaded piteously that her boy should not be taken from her; but master quieted her by telling her that he was simply going to town with the wagon, and would be back in the morning."
When she was fourteen she was sent to work for his son, who was a Presbyterian minister in Virginia. In 1836 he moved to a church in North Carolina: "The salary was small, and we still had to practise the closest economy. Mr. Bingham, a hard, cruel man, the village schoolmaster, was a member of my young master's church, and he was a frequent visitor to the parsonage." When she refused to have sex with Bingham she suffered a terrible beating. "He seized a rope, caught me roughly, and tried to tie me. I resisted with all my strength, but he was the stronger of the two, and after a hard struggle succeeded in binding my hands and tearing my dress from my back. Then he picked up a rawhide, and began to ply it freely over my shoulders. With steady hand and practised eye he would raise the instrument of torture, nerve himself for a blow, and with fearful force the rawhide descended upon the quivering flesh. It cut the skin, raised great welts, and the warm blood trickled down my back."
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
Elizabeth was later sold to another man who lived in St. Louis, Missouri. When she was twenty-one she was raped by a white man and gave birth to a son. "I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man - I spare the world his name - had base designs upon me. I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I became a mother. The child of which he was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world. If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position."
In 1855 Elizabeth had saved enough money to buy her freedom. She married James Keckley but as a result of his alcoholism and laziness she moved to Washington where she worked as a dressmaker for the wife of Abraham Lincoln. In 1868 she published her autobiography, Thirty Years a Slave.
Elizabeth Keckley, who served as president of the Contraband Relief Association, died in 1907.