PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) – Local historians discovered the first slave to be emancipated by Abraham Lincoln was Nance Legins-Costley, a woman from Pekin. Her son, William Costley, the first male slave emancipated by Lincoln, went on to join the Union Army and was on the docks at Galveston, TX June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth became an unofficial Independence Day for the Black community for generations. But, it wasn’t until the nationwide push to address racism in America, spawned from the country’s reaction to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, that the holiday became federally recognized.
Legins-Costley is memorialized thanks to Pekin native Carl Adams. His book, “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley,” published in 2014, uncovered the story of the three Supreme Court Trials in 1841 that was ultimately Lincoln’s first emancipation.
According to Goodreads, the book is “the only known historical biography to be recognized by both a predominately white historical society and a predominately black historical society.”
Adams uncovered forgotten local history, a legacy that could have been taught to generations of Central Illinoisans.
The Goodreads synopsis of the book also claimed the story was actively suppressed by white supremacist sentiment (Pekin’s history of white suprematism goes back decades).
In an article written for the Pekin Public Library’s blog, “From the History Room,” Adams’ biography of Legins-Costley shows, “during and after her own lifetime her struggles to secure her freedom were well known in Pekin, and Nance herself came to be a well-regarded member of the community.”
She was freed on July 23, 1841, as a result of the Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell. The ruling by Justice Sidney Breese “is also significant in Illinois history for definitively settling that Illinois was a free state where slavery was illegal,” Jared Olar, Pekin Library assistant, wrote.
Legins-Costley fell through the cracks of time until 2019, when Illinois historians began digging for the resting place of one of Pekin’s greatest Black, historical figures.
In the basement of the Peoria County Courthouse, local historian Bob Hoffer discovered Peoria County Undertaker records. He was looking for the grave of his wife’s great-grandfather, but found so much more. He photographed the old burial records he found and turned them over to the Peoria County Genealogical Society.
Another historian and retired Pekin Hospital nurse, Debra Clendenen, connected the dots while working on a Find-A-Grave project.
“The Peoria County undertaker’s report for Nance says she was born in Maryland and died of old age at the remarkable age of 104, on April 6, 1892. The report lists her residence at 226 N. Adams St., which means she was living with her daughter Amanda and son-in-law Edward. According to the report, Nance was buried in Moffatt Cemetery in Peoria,” Olar wrote.
Since she is buried in Peoria, can people go and see her grave? Easy answer: no.
The cemetery was at 3900 SW. Adams St.– the corner of Adams and Griswold– until 1954, when the Peoria City Council voted to rezone the property. At that point, it had been neglected for 50 years, and “sank into decrepitude.” The corner is now home to a parking lot and Ryan’s Muffler & Brake.
Without Hoffer and his discovery of Peoria County Undertaker Records, the Peoria Historical Society and Peoria County Genealogical Society would not have preserved the records and relearned the names of the roughly 2,500 buried at Moffatt Cemetery.
According to a sign on the parking lot fence at the auto shop, Moffatt Cemetery was also the final resting place of several Civil War veterans, some in Galveston on Juneteenth.
The legacy of the Costley’s does not end with Nance. Her oldest son, Bill Costley, became Pekin’s link to Juneteenth.
In Adam’s book, he outlined that Private William Henry “Bill” Costley was a Union soldier under the command of Major General Gordon Granger. It was Granger’s soldiers that landed in Texas on the original Juneteenth.
“I don’t know if we’ve done enough here in Pekin to really recognize the memory of William Costley and I hope that we do as the years come here start to develop more of a knowledge,” said Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, WMBD previously reported.
More of William Costley’s story can be found in this “From the History Room” article.
Leaders in the Peoria community are working to further bring awareness to the legacy of the Costleys and memorialize Nance.
The Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park is underway, and more can be learned from this YouTube video (written and narrated by Hoffer).