By Jared L. Olar
Local History Specialist
Plans are underway for a permanent stone monument in downtown Pekin to honor the memory of Nance Legins-Costley and her son Pvt. William Henry Costley.
In the past few years, Nance and her son William have been the subjects of multiple articles posted here at “From the History Room.” Nance Legins-Costley (1813-1892) of Pekin and Peoria is known to history as the first African-American to secure her freedom with the help of Abraham Lincoln, through the landmark 1841 Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell. Her oldest son William H. Costley (1840-1888) of Pekin later went on to fight in the Union Army during the Civil War, serving in the 29th Illinois Colored Infantry, Co. B., and was present in Galveston, Texas, on the first Juneteenth in 1865.
Partners involved in this project include Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, the City of Pekin, Pekin Main Street, the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce, the Dirksen Congressional Center, and Abel Monument. Ackerman also credits research on Nance Legins-Costley and her family that has been conducted or made possible by the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society and the Pekin Public Library’s Local History collection.
According to Ackerman, the memorial is being privately donated, and Abel Monument is now at work on it.
The monument will be four feet in length and three feet in height, and will bear a header inscription reading, “Tazewell County Remembers.” The names of Nance and her son William, and words of tribute to their lives, will be inscribed on the front and back of the monument.
Ackerman says the memorial is to be installed in the “pocket park” on the north side of Court Street across from the Tazewell Building, located between the Studio 409 beauty salon at 411 Court and the law offices of Joseph W. Dunn at 417 Court St.
Placement and dedication of the monument is to be on or near Juneteenth this summer.
This will be the second Central Illinois memorial devoted to memorializing the life of Nance Legins-Costley.
As was reported here last week, the life of Nance Legins-Costley is also commemorated on an Illinois State Historical marker currently on display at the Peoria RiverPlex facility.
That marker and two others were created last year for the planned Freedom & Remembrance Memorial that will be placed and dedicated this spring at the corner of South Adams and Griswold streets in Peoria. The purpose of the memorial is to honor the lives of the more than 2,600 Peorians (Nance among them) buried at the defunct Moffatt Cemetery that was located a very short distance north of that intersection.
Nance Legins-Costley’s life and that of her family forms a part not only the history of Pekin, where she lived from 1829 to the late 1870s, but also of Peoria, where she lived for most of the rest of her life from the late 1870s until her death in 1892. She and her husband and one of her sons were interred in Moffatt Cemetery.
But I am of the opinion that Nance and her story really belong to all of Illinois, since she was born in Kaskaskia, the old territorial capital (and later the first state capital), and later was taken to Springfield before Nathan Cromwell brought her to Pekin. She even lived briefly with one of her sons in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after her husband Benjamin’s death.
However, the real reason it can be said that Nance belongs to all of Illinois is the indomitable courage and persistence she showed in fighting to secure the recognition of her freedom – for her fight and her strength resulted in an important Illinois Supreme Court ruling benefitting not only her and her family but every other African-American held in indentured servitude in Illinois.
In my opinion, that’s definitely worthy of a monument or two – or more.