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Merlene Davis: Former slave's life is a source of inspiration

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, wrote Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, wrote Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House.

There are times when we all get a bit discouraged and can't think of a good reason why we should continue to fight against what appear to be insurmountable odds.

Will we ever overcome?

It is at those times that we need some inspiration, a role model we can identify with and be encouraged by.

For that reason, I present to you Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley.

Born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, Elizabeth Hobbs received her first beating at age 4. It would not be her last.

"Mrs. Burwell gave birth to a daughter, a sweet, black-eyed baby, my earliest and fondest pet," she wrote in her book Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. "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."

Intent on performing well, Lizzie, as she was called, rocked the infant too briskly, causing the baby to fall to the floor. Her owners were not pleased.

Lizzie's mother, Agnes, was the seamstress for the household of 10 children, making clothes not only for the owner but for the slaves. Lizzie's father, George, was a slave on a plantation miles away and could visit only twice a year, at Easter and at Christmas. When her father's owner moved West, the family was never reunited.

Lizzie helped her mother with the sewing until she was 14 and was sent to live with her master's son, a minister with little money and a cruel wife.

When she and the family moved to North Carolina, the town's schoolmaster was given permission to beat her because the mistress wanted Lizzie to be more submissive.

"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."

Once a week for about a month, the schoolmaster came to beat her. At the last flogging, Lizzie wrote, the schoolmaster changed.

"As I stood bleeding before him, nearly exhausted with his efforts, he burst into tears, and declared that it would be a sin to beat me any more. My suffering at last subdued his hard heart; he asked my forgiveness, and afterwards was an altered man. He was never known to strike one of his servants from that day forward."

The wife and minister tried a couple of more beatings before they, too, relented.

Those beatings and Lizzie's will to maintain her pride should be enough to show us we have the strength to overcome a lot of adversity. Although she was enslaved physically, she was not about to allow anyone to own her mind.

We all can learn from that. Despite our circumstances, we can survive.

But there was more hardship in Lizzie's life.

Raped repeatedly over a period of four years by a friend of her master, Lizzie gave birth to a son she named after her father. A few years later, she moved back with her mother. They moved to St. Louis, where Lizzie used her sewing skills to provide for the 17 people in the household who depended solely on her income.

While in St. Louis, Lizzie met and married James Keckley. She discovered that he was not free as he had claimed and that he was an alcoholic, so she left him.

So where is the joy in Lizzie's life? After enduring so much, shouldn't there be some kind of reward?

Lizzie, after several of her patrons lent her $1,200 to buy freedom for herself and her son, moved to Washington, D.C., where she became a dressmaker for many women in high society, including Jefferson Davis' wife and Mary Todd Lincoln. From 1861 to 1865, Lizzie worked in the White House and became a trusted confidante to President Lincoln's wife.

She was there through the death of their son William "Willie" Lincoln and through the president's assassination.

In 1868, the friendship ended when Lizzie published her book, which revealed some insights into the Lincolns. Lizzie's business declined after that, and she died in 1907 in the home she had helped set up during the Civil War for poor women and children.

But did she see her life as a failure? Not quite.

"I have experienced many ups and downs, but still am stout of heart. ... Though poor in worldly goods, I am rich in friendships, and friends are a recompense for all the woes of the darkest pages of life. For sweet friendship's sake, I can bear more burdens than I have borne."

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley's fortunes ebbed and flowed, but the one constant was her will to remain true to herself. That's why I see her as an inspiration.

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