PEKIN, Ill. (WMBD) — Pekin Community High School students were recognized by city and county leaders on Thursday for an artistic website dedicated to the legacy of the first Black slave freed by Abraham Lincoln.
The website “What Nance Means to Us”, contains student artwork, poetry and testimonials about Nance Legins-Costley, who was born into slavery in Pekin and started fighting for her freedom at the age of 14.
“When I first saw the artwork and the poetry, I was just amazed. It’s beyond words its almost speechless. Their talent is second to none. It’s top notch,” said Pekin Mayor Mary Burress.
Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman said he was blown away by the students’ work and talents.
“I can’t tell you how emotional it was to open [the website] up and see everything the students produced…They really stepped forward. The students did an amazing job of not just some items, but so many that the quality and the quantity is just overwhelming…It has to be recognized as an achievement of its own,” he said.
Kahl said its her first time teaching students about Legins-Costley and that her story will be incorporated into future courses at the high school.
“We know about other historical people who came from Pekin. We grow up in the Land of Lincoln, so everyone knows the story of Abraham Lincoln. Yet this was something that has fallen by the wayside in history. She’s not in textbooks as far as I know… We’re getting to finally honor her in a way she should have been before,” said Colleen Kahl, 11th grade government and psychology teacher at Pekin Community High School.
Kahl said Legins-Costley’s young age as she sought liberation from slavery also resonated with the students.
“Knowing she was only 13, 14 years old when she first started fighting for her freedom, and seeing that even someone from Pekin can make a huge difference can make an impact on a state, on a country, on a man whose going to become the President of the United States,” she said.
The students’ work is part of Tazewell County Juneteenth Celebration on June 17 at Pocket Park in Pekin. The first memorial nationwide to Nance Legins-Costley and her son William Costley will be unveiled at the event.