The 21st Show

Who Was Nance Legins-Costley?


As we observe Black History Month, there are many heroes that get recognized for their enduring contributions to society: for their work towards civil rights, equality and to a more just, perfect union. You have probably heard names like Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois among many others. 

Then there are some who get less recognition, despite putting their indelible mark on history. One of these unsung heroes of Black history is Nance Legins-Costley, an Illinois woman who is often referred to as the first slave that Abraham Lincoln freed, but whose story goes far beyond that narrative. She is not just a part of Lincoln’s story, but instead fought a brave fight for her freedom, having her case heard by the Illinois Supreme Court three times before finally winning her freedom in 1841.

Today, the gravesite of Nance Legins-Costley in Peoria, is paved over by an asphalt lot and lies below other businesses. This is after the city sought to develop the area, but failed to relocate her (and other) graves in the cemetery which was once there, and was her final resting place.

To talk about the life and legacy of Nance Legins-Costley, The 21st was joined by the former president of the Abraham Lincoln Association and a Lincoln scholar. 


Carl Adams, Abraham Lincoln scholar and author of the young adult book NANCE: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln: A True Story of Mrs. Nance Legins-Costley

Kathryn Harris, former president of the Abraham Lincoln Association, and the first African American and woman to hold that position, and former president of the Illinois Library Association.


Prepared for web by Zainab Qureshi

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