Elizabeth Keckley is born a slave in Dinwiddie County Court House, Dinwiddie, Virginia, south of Petersburg. Her mother is named Agnes and is a house slave owned by Armistead and Mary Burwell. Elizabeth’s mother is a ‘privileged slave’, having the opportunity to learn to read and write though this is not legal for slaves. She teaches her daughter Elizabeth these skills secretly. Elizabeth’s biological father is her master Armistead Burwell, a planter and colonel in the War of 1812. Burwell never acts as a father to Elizabeth but allows Agnes to marry George Pleasant Hobbs, another literate slave and he acts as a father figure to agnes in her early years. However his owner moves far away taking him away from his new family. Keckley begins working for the Burwells as a nursemaid for their four children when she is only four years old. She is an only child.
I was my mother’s only child, which made her love for me all the stronger. I did not know much of my father. . . he was separated from us, and only allowed to visit my mother twice a year–during the Easter holidays and Christmas. At last Mr. Burwell determined to reward my mother, by making an arrangement with the owner of my father, by which the separation of my parents could be brought to an end. It was a bright day, indeed, for my mother when it was announced that my father was coming to live with us. The old weary look faded from her face, and she worked as if her heart was in every task. But the golden days did not last long. . .. In the morning my father called me to him and kissed me, then held me out at arms’ length as if he were regarding his child with pride. “She is growing into a large fine girl,” he remarked to my mother. “I dun no which I like best, you or Lizzie, as both are so dear to me.” . . . While yet my father and mother were speaking hopefully, joyfully of the future, Mr. Burwell came to the cabin, with a letter in his hand. He was a kind master in some things, and as gently as possible informed my parents that they must part; for in two hours my father must join his master at Dinwiddie, and go with him to the West…I can remember the scene as if it were but yesterday;–how my father cried out against the cruel separation; his last kiss; his wild straining of my mother to his bosom; the solemn prayer to Heaven; the tears and sobs–the fearful anguish of broken hearts. The last kiss, the last good-by; and he, my father, was gone, gone forever.