It's not easy to trace the amazing story of Nance Legins-Costley. It doesn't fill history books, and even her gravesite is unmarked. But her role in history is significant, USA Today reports. In 1841, she won her freedom in a case before the Illinois Supreme Court. Her attorney was Abraham Lincoln, a state legislator at the time. "It is a presumption of law, in the State of Illinois, that every person is free, without regard to color," the ruling said. Two decades before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation as president, Lincoln had helped set free an enslaved Black person for the first time. The case had a profound effect on the future president, as well, historians say—pushing him toward a firmer opposition to slavery. "This was the first time Abraham Lincoln first gave serious thought to these conditions of slavery," one says.
Legins-Costley was a respected figure in the Illinois city of Pekin. When outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and scarlet fever hit town, she stepped in to care for the sick after the local doctor died, though she had no training. "Her reputation in Pekin was only one of praise," a local writer said, per USA Today. The 1870 city directory noted that she once was a slave: "But she has outlived the age of barbarism, and now, in her still vigorous old age, she sees her race disenthralled; the chains that bound them forever broken." Research indicates Legins-Costley's burial site—along with those of 48 Union soldiers—is paved over, somewhere among a muffler shop, auto garage, and other buildings in Peoria. A sign with the soldiers' names has been hung from a fence at the site of Moffatt Cemetery, and there's an effort to recognize Legins-Costley there. (Read more Abraham Lincoln stories.)