February 09, 2021
I came across an article this week about the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln. Nance Legins-Costley was not born in the south and was not freed as part of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. She instead was born into bondage in the state of Illinois in 1813. Nance’s slavery became a life-long indentured servitude when Illinois became a state and in 1822, she and another indentured servant named Dice, were sold to Nathan Cromwell to recover debts owed by Mr. Cox, their master. While Dice went along with the sale, Nance objected as she was being taken from the only home she had known. Her case ended up in the state Supreme Court where Cox lost, awarding Nance to Cromwell as property. This is the only legal slave auction in Illinois history.
The Northwest Ordinance (1787) banned slavery in Illinois and the rest of the Northwest Territory, but slavery remained an issue throughout the territory’s existence. When Illinois Territory was created in 1809, they kept the Indiana Territory’s Black Code, which restricted free blacks and required them to carry documents to prove their freedom. Slaveowners could keep their workers in bondage by forcing them to sign indentures of anywhere from 40 to 99 years, threatening them with sale elsewhere if they refused. When Illinois became a state (1818), the constitution stated that slavery shall not be “thereafter introduced”, but existing slavery was still tolerated. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled indentured servants could be bought and sold, although three years later it also held that their children were legally free. This ruling ensured that slavery would gradually end. The census records reveal that 747 slaves resided in Illinois in 1830, while by 1840 that number had dwindled to 331.
Nance’s case went to the Illinois Supreme Court again after Cromwell decided to move to Texas in 1836. Nance again refused to go, and her servitude was sold to David Bailey, an abolitionist on the promise of $400. Cromwell died in route and Nance declared herself free. Cromwell’s heirs sued Bailey for the money owed and the judge deemed Nance was again property. Baily took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court and hired an attorney friend whom he had served with in the Black Hawk War, Abraham Lincoln. At the time, Lincoln was ambivalent on the issue of slavery, but his discussions with Nance pushed him toward an anti-slavery stance. On July 9, 1841, Lincoln appeared before the state’s high court. His arguments leaned heavily on the anti-slavery language of the Northwest Ordinance and the Illinois Constitution. The justices agreed and ruled in favor of Bailey and Lincoln: “It is a presumption of law, in the State of Illinois, that every person is free, without regard to color . . . The sale of a free person is illegal.” Nance had finally won her freedom.
Thoughts: It is always easier to point the blame at others than to embrace our own culpability. Northerners tend to look at the South and say, “It is their problem.” The struggles of Nance took place in a northern state that had declared slavery illegal, yet she was born into slavery and lived as a slave for the first 28 years of her life. Clearly, this was not a Southern problem, it is an American failure. It is notable that the BLM movement began in 2013 in response to the death of two Black men in northern cities. Last summer’s protests primarily occurred in northern cities following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Racism is our problem, and we all need to acknowledge its institutional foundation. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.