Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley: Thirty Years a Slave


One of the most tragic consequences of slavery was that it often numbed the conscience of the church.  The slave chronicles are replete with examples of professing Christians who, having once accepted the institution of slavery, were little by little led to a place utterly inconsistent with that profession.  Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley’s story was not unlike many others, except that her master was actually a Presbyterian minister. The following is an excerpt from her book Thirty Years a Slave, published in 1868.

When I was about fourteen years old I went to live with my master’s eldest son, a Presbyterian minister. His salary was small, and he was burdened with a helpless wife, a girl that he had married in the humble walks of life. She was morbidly sensitive, and imagined that I regarded her with contemptuous feelings because she was of poor parentage. I was their only servant, and a gracious loan at that. They were not able to buy me, so my old master sought render them assistance by allowing them the benefit of my services. From the very first I did the work of three servants, and yet I was scolded and regarded with distrust.

The years passed slowly, and I continued to serve them, and at the same time grew into strong, healthy womanhood. I was nearly eighteen when we removed from Virginia to Hillsboro’, North Carolina, where young Mr. Burwell took charge of a church. 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. She whom I called mistress seemed to be desirous to wreak vengeance on me for something, and Bingham became her ready tool.

For three decades prior to the Civil War, this property was the home of Robert and Anna Burwell, their twelve children and the enslaved members of their household, including Elizabeth Hobbes Keckley.

During this time my master was unusually kind to me; he was naturally a good-hearted man, but was influenced by his wife. It was Saturday evening, and while I was bending over the bed, watching the baby that I had just hushed into slumber, Mr. Bingham came to the door and asked me to go with him to his study. Wondering what he meant by his strange request, I followed him, and when we had entered the study he closed the door, and in his blunt way remarked: “Lizzie, I am going to flog you.” I was thunderstruck, and tried to think if I had been remiss in anything. I could not recollect of doing anything to deserve punishment, and with surprise exclaimed: “Whip me, Mr. Bingham! what for?”

“No matter,” he replied, “I am going to whip you, so take down your dress this instant.”

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley Courtesy University of North Carolina

Recollect, I was eighteen years of age, was a woman fully developed, and yet this man coolly bade me take down my dress. I drew myself up proudly, firmly, and said: “No, Mr. Bingham, I shall not take down my dress before you. Moreover, 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.”

My words seemed to exasperate him. 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. Oh God! I can feel the torture now–the terrible, excruciating agony of those moments. I did not scream; I was too proud to let my tormentor know what I was suffering. I closed my lips firmly, that not even a groan might escape from them, and I stood like a statue while the keen lash cut deep into my flesh.

As soon as I was released, stunned with pain, bruised and bleeding, I went home and rushed into the presence of the pastor and his wife, wildly exclaiming: “Master Robert, why did you let Mr. Bingham flog me? What have I done that I should be so punished?”

“Go away,” he gruffly answered, “do not bother me.”

Wedding photograph of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell

I would not be put off thus. “What have I done? I will know why I have been flogged.”

I saw his cheeks flush with anger, but I did not move. He rose to his feet, and on my refusing to go without an explanation, seized a chair, struck me, and felled me to the floor. I rose, bewildered, almost dead with pain, crept to my room, dressed my bruised arms and back as best I could, and then lay down, but not to sleep. No, I could not sleep, for I was suffering mental as well as bodily torture. My spirit rebelled against the unjustness that had been inflicted upon me, and though I tried to smother my anger and to forgive those who had been so cruel to me, it was impossible. It seems that Mr. Bingham had pledged himself to Mrs. Burwell to subdue what he called my “stubborn pride.”

Postscript: Lizzy Hobbs was eventually sold to a man in St. Louis, Missouri where, though treated far more kindly, she was raped by a white man and bore a son, George. She married, but her husband turned out to be a drunkard and the marriage failed. She worked to buy her freedom, and that of her son, an effort in which she was successful thanks to the generosity of friends.  She moved to Washington, D.C., and became a dressmaker, working first for the wife of Jefferson Davis, and later for Mary Todd Lincoln.  She made Mrs. Lincoln’s inaugural gown, and became a close friend and confidante of the First Lady.  After President Lincoln’s assassination, Lizzy’s relations with Mary Todd Lincoln soured when Lizzy published a book about her days with the First Lady, hoping to soften the public’s harsh view of her. Mrs. Lincoln thought it a violation of confidence and broke off relations.

In May 1907, Elizabeth Keckley at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C.  Biographer Dr. Jennifer Fleischer wrote that “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.”1Fleischner, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between a First Lady and a Former Slave. New York: Broadway Books, 2003


1 Fleischner, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between a First Lady and a Former Slave. New York: Broadway Books, 2003