PEORIA, Ill. – The name of Nance Legins-Costley could resonate amid the likes of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionist figures.
But her story is hardly known. Not in Illinois, where – despite anti-slavery laws – she was born into bondage. Not in the city of Pekin, where – despite anti-Black attitudes – she became a beloved community figure. And certainly not in Peoria, where – despite her impressive life – she is buried in ignominy.
Perhaps her story is more subtle than those of high-profile abolitionist leaders, yet her fortitude was astounding. Barely a teen, she first stood up for her civil rights in a court of law that was stacked against Black people. Even amid legal defeats, she kept seeking the most basic of rights: freedom.
“She was a very impressive lady,” says Carl Adams, a historian who has spent more than a quarter-century researching the struggles of Legins-Costley.
She eventually won her freedom, thanks to Abraham Lincoln. But her victory came in 1841, long before the attorney became the nation’s president and more than 20 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.
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