Lincoln seamstress Elizabeth Keckly given Largo grave marker

Sheila Coates, left, Edna Medford, Sandra Walia, Thomas Buckingham and Cecelia Logan unveil a grave marker last week at National Harmony Memorial Park in Largo for dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly.
Sheila Coates, left, Edna Medford, Sandra Walia, Thomas Buckingham and Cecelia Logan unveil a grave marker last week at National Harmony Memorial Park in Largo for dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly. (Christopher Anderson/the Gazette)

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By Liz Skalski
The Gazette
Thursday, June 3, 2010

Years after slave Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly bought freedom for herself and her son, she earned a place in American history for becoming dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln and eventually writing a book on the Lincolns' years in the White House.

But for nearly 50 years, her remains were buried in an unmarked grave at Largo's National Harmony Memorial Park.

"No one knew she was there. The best that anyone ever knew was that her remains were put at a mass grave at Harmony," said Richard Smyth, 59, of Milford, Pa., who spent two years researching where Keckly was buried and worked with county groups to fund a grave marker. "It began as a journey, and now the journey was completed."

On May 26, 103 years after Keckly's death in 1907, her memory and historical significance were honored with a ceremony to dedicate and lay a bronze grave marker on a granite slab detailing her role in presidential history -- a ceremony attended by the self-described amateur historian, along with the Clinton and Washington, D.C.-area volunteers who helped make the day possible.

Keckly, who was born into slavery in Petersburg, Va., eventually bought freedom for herself and her son and used her sewing skills to become the designer and seamstress for President Abraham Lincoln's wife. Keckly died at age 89 on May 26, 1907, said Laurie Verge, museum director for the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, which focuses on the history of the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination.

Keckly owned her own dress shop in the District. She was recommended as a seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln by other society ladies, including the wives of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, Verge said.

In 1868, Keckly wrote a book, "Behind the Scenes," about her relationship with the Lincoln family, Verge said. The book, which upset Mary Lincoln and ultimately caused the two women to end their relationship, has provided historians an account of life inside in Lincoln White House.

After her death in 1907, Keckly was buried in the Columbian Harmony Cemetery in the District. In the 1950s, that cemetery was bought by developers and many of the 37,000 bodies buried there, including Keckly's, were moved to the Largo cemetery -- though the grave markers were not, Verge said.

Keckly has no living relatives or descendants -- her only son died during the Civil War -- and historians believed Keckly's grave could not be located, Verge said.

Then, in 2009, Smyth, a real estate agent who said he has been interested in the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination for about 30 years, began research on historical graves and stumbled upon information on Keckly's.

The cemetery's ledgers and books located the plot and section where Keckly was buried, Smyth said.

Smyth said he has worked with National Harmony Memorial Park and The Surratt Society -- the 1,500-member volunteer associate of the museum that sponsored the project -- over the past two years to get the grave marker.

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