Business and fashion success because of doors opened by women like Elizabeth Keckley

Editor's note: This story was provided by the Flossmoor Community Relations Committee. It is part of a series that paired local black-owned business people with their counterparts from history. This story features Brenda Livingston, owner of Maxine's Boutique, and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a 19th century dress maker.

What inspired you to start your business?
The decision to enter into the retail apparel business was strongly inspired and influenced by my parents. They were the original owners of Maxine's. Our corporate store is located in the near Pill Hill community. It is owned and operated by my parents.
Brenda Livingston, owner of Maxine's Boutique in Homewood. (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)
  Brenda Livingston, owner of
  Maxine's Boutique in Homewood.
 (Marilyn Thomas/H-F Chronicle)

We began business as a hair salon in 1963. The decision to incorporate ladies apparel came in 1973. It was a good decision and spiked rapid growth. Since 1977, our locations have included 53rd Street in Hyde Park, 71st Street Jeffery shopping center, River Oaks Mall, and our most recent location in Flossmoor Commons. (Note: Maxine's recently moved to Homewood. The response was written earlier this year.)

As a business owner, what is your proudest civil rights moment or memory?
My proudest civil rights moment and memory was the election of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama.

What has history taught you that could help someone else who is interested in starting a business?
History has taught me that if you stay faithful to your dream of achieving, whatever it is you desire to do or become, can and will become a reality.

As it relates to your business, what is your favorite quote or saying?
As a fashion stylist, I possess a serious passion for fashion. I extend an invitation for all to stop into either location 1613 E 87th Street, Chicago, or 1938 Ridge Road, Homewood. "We're the difference between dressed and well dressed."

As it relates to Black History Month, what is your favorite quote, moment or memory?
My favorite memory is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His quote "Never be limited by others limited imaginations."


Elizabeth Keckley (Provided photo)
  Elizabeth Keckley
  (Provided photo)

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was a remarkable 19th century African American dressmaker whose business skills were intertwined with religion and philanthropy. 

Born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, Keckley learned how to sew from her mother. Although most of her wages went to her owner to provide for his family, she gradually built a reputation as a talented dressmaker who took great pride in her work. In her 1868 memoir, Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, she wrote that the "best ladies in St. Louis were my patronsand when my reputation was once established I never lacked for orders.”

In 1860, five years after Keckley had purchased freedom for herself and her son, they relocated to Washington, D.C. She overcame the competition of a large community of African American seamstresses and gained a reputation as a gifted dressmaker among the city's white elites

Her client list included some of the city's most prominent families. Varina Davis, future first lady of the Confederacy, was one of her first regular customers. In 1861, Keckley was selected as personal dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln and became one of the first lady's closest confidantes during the war. After her memoir was published, Keckley lost her relationship with Lincoln.

By 1865, Keckley had employed almost 20 African American women. She used this success as a platform for philanthropy to assist tens of thousands of enslaved men and women who had escaped across Union lines. 

In 1862, Keckley helped to found and lead the Ladies' Contraband Relief Association. She used her privileged position as Mary Todd Lincoln's traveling companion to rally support and donations from the president and first lady, British anti-slavery societies and abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Leonard Grimes and Frederick Douglass. 

In 1892, at the age of 74, Keckley accepted a position as the head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Ohio's Wilberforce University, one of the nation's first black universities.

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