Four Pekin Men Were At The First Juneteenth. One Was The First Freed From Slavery By Lincoln
Five Tazewell County men were there. William, Marshall and Nathan Ashby of Pekin served in Company G of the 19th Colored Infantry Regiment, which was primarily composed of Black men. Thomas Tumbleson, a farmer of nearby Elm Grove Township, also served in Company G. William "Bill" Costley of Pekin served in Company B of the regiment.
Costley, the son of Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin, was the first male freed from slavery by the efforts of then-attorney Abraham Lincoln, as part of a landmark 1841 Illinois Supreme Court case overturning the thinly-veiled institution of "indentured servitude" in the ostensibly free state.
Juneteenth has been celebrated each year since that day in Texas in 1865. But it's only now, 156 years later, that it's gained official recognition as a state and federal holiday.
"I'm not a slave. I am free."
Nance Legins-Costley was born in Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory in 1813. Despite her birth in the free territory, she was enslaved under the euphemism of "indentured servitude," though no paperwork ever existed documenting such an arrangement.
Eventually, she was brought to Pekin by Nathan Cromwell, one of the city's founders. Legins-Costley sued three times in court for her freedom, arguing she had never submitted to slavery.
"Slave owners, indentured servant owners, had ways of coercing slaves, even through through violence and brutality, of pressuring them into agreeing to say yes," said Jared Olar, a library research assistant at the Pekin Public Library. "Well, Nance would have none of it. And what a remarkable woman she had to have been to say, 'no, I am not a slave. I'm free.' And to insist on that.
"And that at one point, they even had her locked in a salt cellar. And who knows what beatings she received. What scars she must have had, she must have bore on her body, to know that they're trying to force her, to take away her freedom and her dignity - and she said no."
When the elder Cromwell died, his son, William, was divesting of his father's estate. He attempted to attempted to make good on a deal to sell Legins-Costley's labor contract to David Bailey, an abolitionist.
Bailey maintained he had no obligation to pay, said Olar, and that Legins-Costley said she was free, so there was nothing for him to purchase, anyway.
"Now under Illinois indentured servitude law, there's this legal technicality saying that, well, it's supposed to be voluntary. If you agree to enter into a contract of indentured servitude to work for a person for a certain number of years, you have to say yes to it. And Nance had been saying no, all the way along," Olar said. "And they just had been ignoring her. They had been breaking the law, even under the under the bad institution of indentured servitude in Illinois."
Bailey hired a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln to represent him in the matter. It eventually went to the state Supreme Court in 1841.
In the landmark case Bailey v. Cromwell, Justice Sidney Breese ruled for Bailey. In the process, he struck down the institution of "indentured servitude" in Illinois, which had long been used as a smokescreen for slavery in the so-called free state, even by powerful men like former Gov. Ninian Edwards.
"So that ruling of Bailey v. Cromwell in 1841, it didn't really free her, it really confirmed what she really already was," said Olar. "She was telling the truth. She was being treated as a slave. And she was never [a slave]. They never had any right to her unpaid labor that way."
The men present to witness 'Juneteenth'
Nance Legins-Costley's court case also confirmed the freedom of her three children: Amanda, Eliza Jane, and 10-month-old William Henry. All of them were born into the same life of slavery as their mother under the legal veil of indentured servitude.
The family continued living in Pekin after winning the case. When war broke out in the 1860s after the Southern states succeeded from the Union, there was no shortage of men ready to fight, said John Ackerman, Tazewell County's clerk.
"Nobody was drafted from Tazewell County into the Union army," said Ackerman. "That occurred elsewhere, but not in Tazewell County. We had way more than enough volunteers stepping forward willingly."
Those enlistees included Black men like Costley, the Ashbys, and Tumbleson.
Costley, by then in his early 20s, served in some of the Civil War's most gruesome campaigns, including the siege of Petersburg, Va. in 1864-65. That bloody and long battle claimed more than 60,000 lives.
Costley was wounded by shrapnel in Petersburg, suffering a severe shoulder wound. But because the field surgeon couldn't find an entry wound, he deemed Costley fit for battle and sent him back out, even though the man found it difficult to carry his rifle. The wound would plague Costley for the rest of his life.
After the war, Costley moved back to Pekin to take work as a hostler. But he'd face manslaughter charges in December 1870 when he shot and killed Patrick Doyle, a white man of ill reputation who'd previously been convicted on rape charges.
"There was an incident in which he [Doyle] was drunk out of his mind and attempting to beat his wife to death in public," said Olar. "And Bill Costley knew of Patrick's wife, Elizabeth. They were familiar with each other. And when he saw this happening to his friend, he drew his gun."
Olar said newspaper reports of the time document Costley ordering Patrick Doyle twice to cease, but Doyle ignored him.
"And so Bill Costley shot Patrick Doyle just once. Hit him in the chest. And he's done. Patrick Doyle died within a few minutes," said Olar. "And Bill is indicted for murder."
An all-white jury was convened to hear Costley's case days before Christmas. It didn't take the jury long to acquit Costley of all charges, said Ackerman.
"'We judge him by his character, rather than the color of his skin,'" Ackerman said, referring to the jury's verdict.
That is not to say Costley and other Black people living in Tazewell County didn't face significant racism, even if they were considered to be of "good character" by whites.
"Racism was very much the way society was structured then," said Olar. "Nance, in Pekin, was known as 'Black Nance.' It wasn't necessarily meant as an insult. It was how she was known. Certainly, if she'd been white, she would have been referred to as 'Mrs. Costley,' but because she was Black, she was 'Black Nance'. And so in the Pekin city directory, she's referred to as 'Black Nance.'"
Costley would later move to Peoria, then on to Davenport, Iowa, and later still, Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the late 1880s, Costley began to suffer from a mental illness which occasionally flared in violent outbursts. His landlord at the time, worried because he still had his service weapon from the war, notified authorities.
Costley was committed to a state hospital in Rochester, Minn., where he died in 1888. He's buried there, under a tombstone with his name misspelled "William Crossley."
The Ashbys, who Olar said were either brothers or cousins, hailed originally from Liverpool, a Fulton County river town. Records at the time reported the men were of "mixed race," which would lead to indictments when they married white women. The unions violated Illinois' law prohibiting marriages between Black and white people. The law was on the books until 1874.
Marshall Ashby married a white woman named Mary Jane in Pekin in 1866, shortly after the war. Olar said they disappear from all records after that, suggesting they fled town and led the rest of their lives under the radar.
William J. Ashby was buried under a grave marker at the Illinois Veterans' Home in Quincy.
But as for Nathan Ashby and Nance Legins-Costley, the first woman freed from slavery by Abraham Lincoln, no trace of their final resting place exists today beyond old documents. Both were buried in the Moffatt Cemetery in Peoria. The city paved over the unkempt cemetery in the 1950s, with most of the unclaimed bodies still in the ground as a parking lot was poured.
Early plans are in the works to honor Nance Legins-Costley and the Civil War veterans lain to rest at the corner of Griswold and Adams with a memorial.
These are the fates of Central Illinois' own, present at the original Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, informing those enslaved there that they were free.
Juneteenth is now a holiday - but the work isn't done
Granger's proclamation on June 19, 1865 has been celebrated every Juneteenth since as a celebration of the abolition of slavery.
Pastor Marvin Hightower, president of the NAACP Peoria Branch, said slavery was an institution for 373 years - ended only by the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in America's history. It's taken 156 years for the day the last enslaved people in the former Confederacy learned they were free to gain official recognition.
"We must take this low hanging fruit, eat it, gain strength from it and keep climbing. The fight for civil rights, voting rights, justice and equity is far from over. But we have made some progress. And the Juneteenth holiday is one of those steps. But as we continue to move forward, all of us have a part to play," Hightower said.
For Melodi Green, the chair of the Peoria County Bar Association's diversity committee, Juneteenth is every bit as important as Independence Day.
"Well, it's just as important as July 4, because, you know, African Americans are part of this country as well. And you know, while July 4 is celebrated as a day of freedom, you know, for many of us in this nation and our allies, you know, we were not in fact free," she said. "To us, it is just as important as other holidays, and it should be celebrated as such."
Both Gov. JB Pritkzer and President Joe Biden signed bills this week recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday, officially recognizing June 19's significance at the state and federal levels, respectively.
"I think designating Juneteenth is a national holiday was fitting," said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who was at the White House for Biden's bill signing. "It's been 40 years since we declared Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. And I think this is an important moment in American history. That should never be forgotten."
It was also a rare moment in modern politics when partisanship was (mostly) put aside, noted U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline).
"I know it's taken a number of years. But as soon as we got the legislation together, we pass it out the House, passed it out of the Senate, bipartisan, by the way," said Bustos. "How many bills can we point to these days that are truly bipartisan? And it received wide bipartisan support. So we're very proud of that."
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Peoria) said it's important to recognize Juneteenth.
"I think about the phrase, if we don't understand our history, we're doomed to repeat it. And we think about the history of America, in the greatest country in the world. And I often tell my three teenage boys, how lucky [we are to be in this] country and be able to prosper and thrive because of our freedoms and opportunities," said LaHood. "But America isn't perfect. We are flawed. And I think looking at our history, in the history of slavery, and what happened during that era is something we always have to remember as a darker side of our history."
Jared Olar of the Pekin Public Library said while some history is willfully forgotten, much of our memory of the past, good and bad, simply falls through the cracks with the passage of time.
But he said some stories, like those of the five Black men from Tazewell County who volunteered to go to war to end the evils of slavery across the nation, should never be forgotten.
"I don't want people to just be forgotten. I've long had a love of history because I want to find out, where do we come from? Why are we this way? Where does that custom come from? Where do these laws come from? And who were these people, most of all, who are these people? What's their story? Who were they?" he said. "Because, you know, they're there. There are children of God, made in God's image. And you know, if God loves them enough to create them, then we ought to care enough to remember them."
That is not to say the ugly legacy of slavery exists only in the history books, Green said.
"Our struggles have remained, and they remain today. Juneteenth was important, then. But it has remained important now. Because we are not yet where we need to be as a nation with regards to some of the systemic injustices that have come from the institution of slavery," Green said. "So even more for me than the celebration aspect of it, I think it is a reminder to myself, to the community, about the work that still needs to be done to right the wrongs of the institution of slavery."
For Pastor Marvin Hightower, there's no question about the work that still needs to be done:
"Number one, we need to stop denying racism exists.
"Number two, we need to be educated on racism as a grave issue of prejudice, harnessing and abusing power, and the manipulation of privilege.
"Number three, we need to commit to being informed about systemic issues, and about the daily devastation of racism.
"Number four, we need to honestly examine systems that were constructed with and infiltrated by racist ideals.
"And number five, we need to make diversity a priority in our community.
"And last but certainly not least, number six, we need to care.
"We need to care and if we will do that together, we will move closer to the line in the Declaration of Independence, which says all men are created equal. When we all do better, we all do better."