Freedom and Remembrance Memorial serves as tribute to the hundreds still interred at former Peoria cemetery
The new Freedom and Remembrance Memorial Park on Southwest Adams in Peoria commemorates the site and memory of a forgotten cemetery. A genealogy project started seven years ago led to the rediscovery of almost 3,000 interred Peorians.
Bob Hoffer started his project to find the burial place of his wife’s great grandfather in 2015. He found evidence of the forgotten Moffatt Cemetery within his first year of research, in a book of transcriptions of Peoria County coroner records at the Peoria Public Library.
“I wonder if he could possibly be in there, looked back and there was a couple of typed lines in there that had his name and had his death date and so on, which was Christmas Day 1885,” Hoffer said. “And that's where the statement was, his wife had him buried at Moffatt because nobody knew what Moffatt was.”
Further research through the Peoria Public Library and old health department records at the Peoria County Courthouse unveiled a fuller history of the Moffatt Cemetery. The city health department closed the cemetery in 1905. It was razed in the 1950s and prepared for further development.
Hoffer and other community historians have connected more than 2,700 people to the cemetery, which is now the site of a parking lot. Around 100 people were moved to other cemeteries after the closure, but the vast majority of burials, including those of figures historically relevant to the Civil War, emancipation and the American Revolution, remained.
“I can recall a phrase that was used, and it said that, ‘history of place is a history of people,’” said Hoffer. “And so our history is not only of the places and things that we have seen in our area, but also our people, most importantly, our people.”
The United Union of Roofers Local 69 donated a plot of land near the original Moffatt Cemetery to the city for a nominal fee. The Peoria City Council approved the purchase in February. Now, the corner at 3917 S.W. Adams Street is home to three Illinois State Historical Society markers, an informational story board and a lighted flagpole.
Some of the notable figures buried at Moffatt Cemetery include Nance Legins-Costley, the first slave legally defended by Abraham Lincoln, and a Union soldier present for the first Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas.
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali apologized on behalf of the city for the past mistreatment of the site at a ceremony Wednesday, marking the creation of the memorial.
“I think moving forward, remembering, memorializing the people who were buried in Moffatt Cemetery is just a great move for the city,” she said afterwards. “You know, our transgressions, hopefully can be forgiven by the change that we make today.”
Other speakers at the ceremony included author and Lincoln historian Carl Adams, Peoria NAACP President Marvin Hightower and Illinois Lt. Governor Julianna Stratton.
“Today is not just about preserving history, today is an act of justice,” said Stratton. “In some respects, it is a way of reclaiming the land, placing markers in the ground to say that these souls will no longer be ignored, or overlooked or diminished.”
A long list of partners made the final product possible, including the Peoria Historical Society, the Riverfront Museum, the American Legion Post 2, the Sons and Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War and more.
For Hoffer, the ceremony also ended the project with finality, the culmination of years of building partnerships and furthering genealogical research efforts.
“When all this was officially over, it was exactly 11 o'clock,” he said. “And I will remember that distinctly as being the moment that my freedom occurred, freedom from this project for seven years.”
You can find more information on the history of Moffatt Cemetery, the people buried there and the timeline of the creation of the Freedom and Remembrance Memorial here.