By Jared L. Olar
Local History Program Coordinator
As we mentioned here a little over two weeks ago, some special Juneteenth-related events are planned in Pekin and Peoria this month. The years of work to create a fitting memorial honoring more than 2,600 Peorians buried at the former Moffatt Cemetery are coming to fruition as Peoria’s new Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park will be formally named and opened at 10 a.m. Flag Day, Wednesday, June 14.
That same week will see two very special events in Pekin. on Friday, June 16, at noon, the Pekin Public Library will host a program about the life of Nance Legins-Costley (1813-1892) of Pekin and the new Moffat Cemetery memorial park in Peoria. Then on Saturday, June 17, at 10 a.m., the City of Pekin and Tazewell County will hold a dedication ceremony in the 400 block of Court Street to celebrate the Costley Monument which honors Nance and her son Pvt. William H. Costley (c.1840-1888) of Pekin, who was one of the original eyewitnesses of Juneteenth.
Nance Legins-Costley and her husband Benjamin Costley (c.1812-1883) and their son Leander Costley (c.1845-1886) are among those buried at the former Moffatt Cemetery in Peoria. She and her three eldest children (including her son William) are known to history as the first African-Americans to be freed from enslavement with the help of Abraham Lincoln, through the landmark Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell (1841).
Peoria’s Event – Wednesday, June 14, 10 a.m.
The City of Peoria, Peoria Park District, Peoria Historical Society, and numerous other community organizations will gather for their event on Flag Day at West Montana and Griswold, across the street from Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park. Street parking will be available. For more information about Peoria’s event, email Stacy Peterson, Peoria’s Strategic Communications Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at (309) 494-8560. To learn the story of the F&RM Park Project and the history of Moffatt Cemetery, visit www.PeoriaFreedomMemorial.org or www.Facebook.com/PeoriaFreedomMemorial .
Pekin Public Library Event – Friday, June 16, noon
The Pekin Public Library will host a program that will tell the story of Pekin’s Costley Monument and Peoria’s Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park, with a major focus on Nance Legins-Costley and her spirited defense of her freedom and her rights. Speakers at the event will include 1) Robert Hoffer of the Peoria Historical Society, who with the help of a team of volunteers worked steadfastly to bring about creation of the Moffatt Cemetery memorial; 2) Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, who has spearheaded the creation of the Costley Monument in Pekin; and 3) historian Carl Adams, whose research into the remarkable lives of Nance Legins-Costley and her family have been ground-breaking both metaphorically and literally.
The event is sponsored by the Coalition for Equality YWCA Pekin, the Pekin Public Library, the Tazewell County Clerk’s Office, the Tazewell County Historical and Genealogical Society, and the Peoria Historical Society. The Coalition for Equality will provide refreshments, and guests are also welcome to bring lunch.
Costley Monument Dedication – Saturday, June 17, 10 a.m.
As mentioned above, during this event the City of Pekin and Tazewell County will jointly dedicate a monument in the 400 block of Court Street in honor of Nance Legins-Costley and her eldest son, Pvt. William Henry Costley, who served in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, Co. B., during the Civil War, and thus was one of Pekin’s and Tazewell County’s witnesses to the first Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas, June 1865. The monument honoring them and telling their stories will be placed in the “pocket park” on the north side of the 400 block of Court Street.
The keynote address will be presented by special guest Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lisa Holder White, who was the first African-American judge in the Sixth Judicial Circuit and the first African-American justice on the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District.
Pekin Mayor Mary Burress will preside over the ceremony in downtown Pekin. During the ceremony, Mayor Buress will present a city of proclamation, and Illinois State Rep. Travis Weaver will present an Illinois House of Representatives proclamation.
Other event participants include historian Carl Adams, who will speak about the freedom lawsuits that Nance Legins-Costley brought during her years of struggle to secure the recognition of her freedom. I have also been asked to speak about the history of the Costley family in Pekin, highlighting Nance’s family and the life of her son Pvt. William H. Costley.
The highlight of the event will be the formal unveiling of the Costley Monument and the presentation of two Illinois State Historical Markers by the Illinois State Historical Society. The stone monument itself is being created by Abel Vault & Monument of Pekin. The event will conclude with closing remarks and benediction by Rev. Marvin Hightower of the Peoria branch of the NAACP.
After the dedication and unveiling, the celebration of Juneteenth will continue downtown with live music and what is planned as a first-annual community picnic.
Event sponsors and organizers include Tazewell County Clerk John C. Ackerman, the City of Pekin, the Pekin Chamber of Commerce, Pekin Main Street, the Dirksen Congressional Center, YWCA Coalition for Equality, the Pekin Public Library, and the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society.
Pekin Community High School has also helped to shine a line on Nance Legins-Costley by incorporating her story in the studies and activities of the 2022-2023 school year. Students not only learned about Nance and the significance of the 1841 Bailey v. Cromwell ruling, but also created art, wrote poems and created a video biography inspired by her story.
Pekin Mayor Mary Burress and Tazewell County Clerk John C. Ackerman recognized the efforts of the PCHS students and staff during a press conference today, Thursday, June 1, the high school’s Holman Center.
The students’ “What Nance Means To Us” project may be viewed here:
Note: No photographs or contemporary portraits of Nance Legins-Costley and her son Pvt. William Henry Costley are known to exist. The students’ representations of Nance are therefore derived from a photograph of Selina Gray who had been a slave at Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Arlington Plantation. Discover Peoria had previously used Selina Gray’s image as a symbol of emancipated African-American womanhood to represent Nance Legins-Costley. The students’ video biography also incorporates a photograph of Pvt. William Henry Costley of Weldon (1845-1903), IIlinois, whom historian M. Scott Heerman in 2018 erroneously identified as Nance’s son Pvt. Willliam Henry Costley of Pekin (c.1840-1888).