Essay: Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley’s life was an eventful one. Born a slave in Dinwiddie Court-House, Virginia, from slave parents, she did not have it easy, as her early years were crowded with incidents.
She was only four year old when her mistress, Mrs. Burwell delivered a beautiful black-eyed baby, whose care was assigned to Elizabeth, a child herself. This task didn’t seem very hard to her, as she had been educated to serve others and to rely much on herself. If she met Mrs. Burwell’s expectations, it would be her passport into the plantation house, where she could work alongside her mother, who did most of the cooking and sewing in the family. Trying to rock the cradle as hard as she could, she dropped the baby on the floor and immediately panicked, attempting to pick it up with the fire-shovel, until her mistress came into the room and started screaming at her. It was then that she received her first lashing, but that would not be her last punishment. It was the one she would remember most, though.
At seven years old, Elizabeth saw a slave sale for the first time. Her master had just acquired the hogs he needed for the winter and didn’t have enough money for the purchase. To avoid the shame of not being able to pay, he decided to sell one of his slaves, little Joe, the cook’s son. His mom was kept in oblivion, in spite of her suspicions. She was told little Joe was coming back the next morning, but mornings passed and his mother never saw him again.
By the time she was eight, the Burwell family had four daughters and six sons, with a large number of servants. She didn’t see much of her father, as he served a different master, but it was also because they were enable to be together as a family only twice a year, at Christmas and during the Easter holidays. Her mother, Agnes, was thrilled when Mr. Burwell made arrangements for her husband to come live with them, and little Lizzie, as her father used to call her, was ecstatic to finally have her family together. That only lasted until Mr. Burwell came on one fine day bringing with him a letter saying that her father had to leave to the West with his master, where he had decided to relocate. And that was the last time she ever saw her dad.
Another memory that Elizabeth could not shake was the death of one her uncles, another slave of Mr. Burwell’s. After one day, he lost his pair of plough-lines, but Colonel Burwell offered him another, a new one, and told him he would be punished if he lost those too. But a couple weeks later his new pair got stolen and he hung himself for fear of his master’s reaction. It was Lizzie’s mother that found him the next morning, suspended by one of the willow’s solid branches, down by the river. He chose taking his life over the punishment from his master.
Because they didn’t have any slaves of their own, at 14 Lizzie was separated from her mom and given as a chore girl to her master’s oldest son, who lived in Virginia. His wife was a helpless, morbidly sensitive girl, with little parenting skills. Reverend Robert Burwell was earning very little money, so he couldn’t afford to buy Elizabeth, only to benefit from her services thanks to his father. Living with the minister, she had to do the work of three people, and they still didn’t find her trustworthy. By the time she was 18, Elizabeth had grown into a proud, beautiful young woman. It was around that time that the family moved to Hillsboro, in Northern Carolina, where the minister was assigned a church of his own.
Mr. Bingham, the school principal, was an active member of the church and a frequent visitor of the church house. He was a harsh, pitiless man who became the mistress’s tool in punishing Lizzie, as Mrs. Burwell was always looking for vengeance against her for one reason or another. Mr. Burwell was a kind man, but was highly influenced by his wife and took after her behavior fairly often. One night, after Elizabeth had just put the baby to sleep, Mr. Bingham told her to follow him to his office , where she was asked to take her clothes off because he was going to whip her. Then she did something that no slave had ever done. She refused. She dared him to give her a reason or otherwise he would have to force her, which he did. She was too proud to give him the pleasure of seeing her suffer, so she just stood there like a statue, with her lips firmly closed, until it was over. When he finally let her go, she went straight to her master and asked for an explanation, but Mr. Burwell didn’t react in any way, and only told her to leave. When she refused to go, the minister hit her with a chair. Lizzie couldn’t sleep that night, and it wasn’t from the physical pain, but more from the mental torture she had suffered. Her spirit stoically refused this unjust behavior and as much as she tried, she couldn’t forgive those who had it inflicted it upon her.
The next day all she wanted was a kind word from those who had made her suffer, but that didn’t happen. Instead, she continued to be lashed on a regular basis by Mr. Bingham, who convinced Mrs. Burwell it was the right thing to do to cure her pride and stubbornness. Lizzie continued to resist him, more proud and defiant every time, until one day he started crying in front of her, telling her she didn’t deserve it and he couldn’t do it anymore. He even asked Lizzie for forgiveness and from that day on he never hit one of his slaves ever again.
When Mr. Bingham refused to perform his duty anymore, it was Mr. Burwell’s turn to do it, urged by his jealous wife. Elizabeth continued to resist though, and eventually her attitude softened their hearts and they promised to never beat her again, and they kept their promise.
Sadly, this kind of event was not the only thing that caused her pain during her residence at Hillsboro. Because she was consider fair-looking for one of her race, she was abused by a white man for more than four years, when she got pregnant and gave birth to a boy, the only child she ever had. It wasn’t a child that she wanted to have, because of the society that she was part of, as a child of two races would always be frowned upon and she didn’t want him to suffer like she did.
The years passed and many things happened during that time. One of Elizabeth’s old mistress’s daughters, Ann, married Mr. Garland, and Lizzie went to live with them in Virginia, where she was reunited with her mother. The family was poor and couldn’t afford a living in Virginia, so Mr. Garland decided to move away from his home to the banks of Mississippi, in search of better luck. Unfortunately, moving didn’t change anything, and the family still didn’t have the resource needed to make a living. It got to a point where they were considering putting Agnes, her mother, out of service. Lizzie was outraged by the idea that her mom, who was raised in this family and grew up to raise their children years later and love them as her own, would have to go work for strangers. She would have done anything to prevent this from happening. And she did. She convinced Mr. Garland to let find someplace to work to help the family and to keep her mother close to her. It wasn’t hard to find work , and she soon had quite a reputation as a seamstress and dress-maker. All the ladies came to her for dresses and she never lacked clients. She was doing so well that she managed to support a seventeen-member family for almost two and a half years. Around that time, Mr. Keckley, whom she had met earlier in Virginia, and regarded with a little more than friendship, came to St. Louis and proposed to her. She refused at first, saying that she had to think about his offer, but what scared her was the thought of giving birth to another child that would live in slavery. She loved her son enormously, but she always felt it was unfair for the free side of him, the Anglo-Saxon blood that he had, to be silenced by the slave side that he was born with. She wanted him to have the freedom that he deserved. After thinking about it for a long time, he decided to go to Mr. Garland and asked him the price she should pay for her freedom and her son’s. he dismissed her immediately and told her to never say such a thing ever again, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it. With all the respect the had for her master, she went to see him again and asked him what was the price she had to pay for herself and her son to be free.
He finally gave in to her requests and told her that 1200$ was the price of her freedom. This gave her a silver lining to the dark cloud of her life and with a perspective of freedom she agreed to marry Mr. Keckley and start a family with him. But years passed and she couldn’t manage to save that amount of money because her duties with the family were overwhelming and she didn’t leave much time for anything. Also, her husband, Mr. Keckley, proved to be more of a burden than a support for her and the boy. Meanwhile Mr. Garland died and Elizabeth was given to another master, a Mississippi planter, Mr. Burwell, a compassionate man who told her she should be free and he would help with anything she needed to raise the amount of money needed to pay for this freedom.
Several plans were thought through, until Lizzie decided she should go to New York and appeal to people’s generosity to help her carry out her plan. All was set; all she needed now was six men to vouch with their money for her return. She had lots of friends in St. Louis and didn’t think it would be a problem, and she easily gathered the first five signatures. The sixth one was Mr. Farrow, an old friend of hers, and she didn’t think he would refuse her. He didn’t, but he didn’t believe she would came back either. Elizabeth was puzzled that he didn’t believe in her cause, and she couldn’t accept his signature if he really thought it was the final goodbye from her. She went home and started to cry, looking at her ready-to-go trunk and at the luncheon her mother had prepared for her, believing that her dream of freedom was nothing but a dream and she and her son would die slaves, the same way they were born.
And then something happened, something she never expected. Mrs. Le Bourgois, one of her patrons, walked in and changed her world around. She said it wouldn’t be fair for her to beg strangers for money and it was the ones who knew her that should help her. She would give her 200$ from her and mother and she would ask all her friends do help Elizabeth. She was successful and rapidly managed to find the 1200$ Elizabeth needed. And that was it. Lizzie and her sixteen year old son, George, were finally free. Free to go anywhere they wanted. Free to start over and to have the life they always wanted. Free by the laws of men and by the smile of God.

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