The first slave that Abraham Lincoln helped free rests in an unmarked, asphalted-over grave in South Peoria, but no longer forgotten.
Soon, Nance Legins-Costley’s name will finally rise above her final resting place.
It’s about time. Legins-Costley — the first slave helped to freedom by Abraham Lincoln, two decades before the Civil War — has gone forgotten far too long, and now rests in an unmarked grave covered by asphalt in South Peoria.
She isn’t the only one. More than 2,600 others, including 52 veterans, lie at the former Moffatt Cemetery.
This spring, three markers will go up on a small, new park — The Freedom & Remembrance Memorial — adjacent to the former cemetery. One honors Legins-Costley, one lists the names of the veterans, and another explains the history of Moffatt Cemetery. The memorial will culminate years of hard work by local historians, spearheaded by Robert Hoffer of Peoria.
“The story of South Peoria’s Moffatt Cemetery is truly one of the forgotten mysteries of Peoria history,” Hoffer said. “Those buried there deserve to be forgotten no more.”
None deserves to be remembered more than Legins-Costley, who put up a remarkable and brave fight for freedom, starting in her youth.
Nance was born in Kaskaskia in 1813, five years before Illinois gained statehood. She was the daughter of Randall and Anachy Legins, who had been bought as indentured servants by Col. Tom Cox. At the time, indentured servitude was essentially slavery by another name, yet legal in Illinois. Cox sold her to Nathan Cromwell of Springfield. Though the teenage Nance challenged the transaction in court, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled her the servant of Cromwell.
In 1829, Cromwell and his wife, Ann Eliza, moved to Tazewell County to help found Pekin, bringing along Nance. In 1836, then-widower Cromwell decided to move to Texas. Not wanting to take Nance — he feared sparking scandal by traveling with an unmarried Black woman — he left Nance in the care of a former business partner in Pekin, David Bailey.
Bailey, an abolitionist, promptly let Nance live as a free woman. In 1840, she wed a free Black man, Benjamin Costley of Pekin, thus becoming Nance Legins-Costley.
But the next year, she again faced a legal fight. After Cromwell died, a relative acting on behalf of his trust sued Bailey for a purported debt of $400. With Bailey destitute, a judge decided to square the debt by ruling Nance to still be an indentured servant, and forthwith the property of the Cromwell relative.
Bailey took the matter to the Illinois Supreme Court, enlisting the help of an old friend, Abe Lincoln, then in his fourth term in the Illinois Legislature. Lincoln, leaning on the Illinois Constitution, argued for Nance’s freedom. The court agreed – and ended indentured servitude in Illinois — by ruling, “It is a presumption of law, in the State of Illinois, that every person is free, without regard to color. … The sale of a free person is illegal.”
Nance Legins-Costley and her husband would raise eight children in Pekin, where she became revered for her civic involvement. After her husband died in 1883, she went to live with her daughter and son-in-law at 226 N. Adams St. in Peoria. She died in Peoria at age 79 on April 6, 1892.
At that, her story pretty much died, as well — until recent years.
Part of the resurgence comes at the hand of historian Carl Adams, who has spent more than a quarter-century researching her life. In 2016, his work resulted in the publication of Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln. Adams, a former Illinoisan now living in Maryland, believes Lincoln’s interactions with Legins-Costley changed his ambivalent view on slavery into one that changed the course of U.S. history.
“It was the case that convinced Lincoln about the evils of slavery,” Adams said.
In recent years, Hoffer and other local history buffs pored over old records and discovered Moffatt Cemetery — and its ignominious history.
Aquilla Moffatt arrived in Peoria in 1822, building a home near the intersection of Southwest Adams and South Griswold streets. He established a small graveyard for family and friends, then added a plot for Union veterans. In 1870, he sold the land to investors, who formed the Griswold Cemetery Association. But the site became so overcrowded with burials that the city ordered it shuttered in 1905.
Abandoned, the site fell into overgrown disrepair. In the 1950s, the land was cleared and sold to commercial interests, with much of the area becoming paved over – though, purportedly, not until all of the graves had been relocated.
But Hoffer and others discovered that only about 100 graves had been moved. Still there, under parking lots and commercial buildings, are the remains of about 2,600 Peorians, including 52 veterans. One is a Black soldier present at Galveston, Texas for the events now celebrated on the Juneteenth federal holiday.
Among the civilian graves, one is that of Nance, though the exact spot is unknown.
“She’s somewhere there,” Hoffer said. “There are no (specific) records.”
Hoffer has led the charge to honor the gravesites with a memorial park. Through grants and private donations, the markers were crafted at $5,000 apiece. A lighted flagpole will cost another $4,000.
The memorial will sit on a small plot — about 80 by 80 feet — at the corner of South Griswold and Southwest Adams streets, just south of Moffatt Cemetery. The property is being donated to the city by United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers Local 69, which owns property near the intersection. The site will be maintained by the Peoria Park District.
As yet unscheduled, the installation of the markers and flagpole will happen this spring. For the dedication, Hoffer plans to invite descendants of Nance Legins-Costley.
“We want family there,” Hoffer said.
Over time, he expects tourists and historians to frequent the spot. Mayor Rita Ali hopes for the same thing.
“The Freedom & Remembrance Memorial is a true example of Peoria’s deep and rich history,” she said. “It reminds us of the past sins of our city, teaches us about Nance Legins-Costley, the first enslaved person Abraham Lincoln helped to free, and reflects the decades-long efforts of people determined to honor those long-forgotten souls buried at Moffatt Cemetery.
“This fitting tribute … will boost tourism and attract history lovers from around the nation. It is, in fact, America’s history.”