William Henry Costley was just 10 months old in 1841 when Lincoln, who was still a young lawyer, won an Illinois Supreme Court case freeing Costley’s mother from indentured servitude – a status that historians say would have been akin to enslavement for the black woman and child at that time. That was 22 years before Lincoln, as president, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in rebel states not under Union control free.
Nance Legins-Costley and her son William were from Pekin, a central Illinois community about 130 miles southwest of Chicago, which is what drew the interest of a local amateur historian, Carl Adams. Adams, who now lives in Stuttgart, Germany, spent years researching her and her children’s lives . Last year he published “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln – A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley.”
In his book, Adams writes that after winning her lengthy legal battle for freedom, Legins-Costley, who had been born to slaves and sold twice before Lincoln took up her cause, lived to a ripe old age in Pekin. Military records helped Adams retrace her son’s steps, but finding his gravesite required the help of a curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and a historical researcher in Minnesota.