Unbeknownst to many, Central Illinois has quite a bit of history tied to Juneteenth.

Peoria-based historians discovered the first slaves to be emancipated by Abraham Lincoln, who was an attorney at the time, was Nance Legins-Costley, a woman from Pekin, Illinois, and her infant son William “Bill” Costley.

Nance was freed on July 23, 1841, as a result of the Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell. This ruling by Justice Sidney Breese was extremely significant in our state’s history for declaring that Illinois was a free state where slavery was illegal, causing other states to follow.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued by then-President Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, declared that all enslaved people in the Confederate states were free. However, Texas was not under Union control at the time, so the Emancipation Proclamation did not take effect there until June 19, 1865, when federal troops under the command of Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and announced that all enslaved people in the state were free. Nance’s son Bill was among Union troops on that day.

This day became an unofficial Independence Day for the Black community in America and is now celebrated as Juneteenth, a federal holiday in the United States.

Here in Illinois, many of the celebrations included reading the Emancipation Proclamation and telling harrowing stories of the past generations’ journey to freedom.

In particular, throughout the 1990s, Decatur, Illinois had an annual Juneteenth celebration organized by the African-American Cultural & Genealogical Society of Illinois where they crowned a Mr. and Mrs. Juneteenth.

In Chicago, a local African-American radio station WVON hosted a celebration at Mandrake Park near the Bronzeville neighborhood with former Alderman Dorothy Tillman in 2002, causing other informal celebrations to pop up at Rosenblum Park. In this same year Mayor Richard J. Daley acknowledged the holiday in a city council meeting and urged all Chicagoans to celebrate.

Since then, Juneteenth was commemorated in Illinois in 2003, and became a state and federal holiday in 2021. This day is a time to celebrate and acknowledge Black lives, stories, and experiences and this country's painful history of injustice.

If you would like to attend any local Illinois Juneteenth events, read more here.