Nance Legins-Costley was born into slavery in the Illinois Territory, but from a young age she fought a series of legal battles to realize the promise of the Northwest Ordinance that, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.”
Eventually, a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln took up her cause – which was very unpopular to do at the time – and argued her case before the Illinois Supreme Court. He won in 1841, making Ms. Legins-Costley and her family the first slaves that Lincoln helped to free – a full 20 years before the beginning of the Civil War.
Ms. Legins-Costley lived for a time in Pekin before moving to South Peoria with her family later in life. She rests today still at the old Moffatt Cemetery below some of the commercial developments there.
For a more complete picture of Ms. Legins-Costley’s life and fight for freedom – and Lincoln’s contribution to it – author Carl Adams wrote the book “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln”.
Mr. Adams produced a video version of Legins-Costley’s story. Please enjoy:
Mr. Adams also spoke with the Peoria Historical Society at the Peoria Riverfront Museum regarding Ms. Legins-Costley. We hope you enjoy this interview.