Metro-East Living

Alton native tells story of first slave Lincoln freed

President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in the 1860s.

Everybody knows that. But did you know Lincoln first freed a slave more than 20 years earlier in an Illinois Supreme Court case when he was just 32?

Not many people do. Alton native Carl Adams wants to change that. That’s why he wrote “Nance: The Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln,” a 75-page, self-published book for young people.

Nance was born to slaves Randol and Anachy Legins in 1813, in a guesthouse owned by Capt. George Cox.

“She grew up as a servant in a boarding house across the street from the Illinois capitol in Vandalia,” Carl said. “She was a servant to judges, lawyers and senators and she was always listening to what was going on.”

She knew slavery was a hot topic in Illinois. Perhaps that’s where her yearning for freedom began.

“She could not read or write, but she was not stupid.”

As an indentured servant to the Cox family, she moved with them to Springfield, which Cox was pushing as the new capital. Because Cox became a drunk and was in great debt, his property — including Nance — was confiscated. She was beaten and tossed in a hot, steamy, windowless shed and forgotten about for days. Eventually, she was auctioned off for $151.

Nance’s auction as property was tested in Illinois Supreme Court cases twice, in 1927 and 1928, but she was denied both times. It wasn’t until 1941 that a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln argued her case in the Illinois Supreme Court — and won! The court agreed that “No person in Illinois could be sold as a slave,” Carl said. “Bingo! The end of slavery. ...”

It took until 1865 and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment for all slaves to be freed in the United States. But Nance’s case was a vital stepping stone for the country to get to that point and for Lincoln to champion the cause.

Carl, 63, is semi-retired and living in Stuttgart, Germany. He earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from SIUE in 1979 and worked for more than 20 years on public radio documentaries and network television news. In the 1970s and ’80s, he lectured as a military training officer for both the U.S. Marines and the Army.

Why did you write “Nance”? “I wrote this book for young people to get to know Nance,” Carl said. “When she was charged and beaten, she was only 13. As a slave, she was worthless. Many young people feel they are worthless, too They can compare themselves to a slave, who did something about it. I want to empower young people to feel they could change and do something positive, too.”

What piqued your interest in Nance? Carl came across a short story that appeared in a Tazewell County newspaper in the 1990s that stated: A “Negro girl named Nance” was the first slave freed by Abraham Lincoln through the legal case of Bailey v. Cromwell in 1841. ... “That was all of it. No one seemed to have written anything else about her in over 100 years,” Carl wrote in the introduction.

How long have you been working on “Nance”? “I have been doing extensive research for 20 years. I have two complete filing cabinets full of stuff. I wrote my first article about her in 1999. People told me it was no big deal, but I knew it was. You have no idea how much criticism I endured in Springfield after my first article, therefore, I knew I had to be able to justify every reference, every phrase, or catch hell for it.”

How things have changed. According to Richard E. Hart a Springfield attorney and former head of the President Abraham Lincoln Association: “Nance’s story is absolutely wonderful. Carl Adams has reached out and found material that no one else had ever put together. It’s a really great addition to Illinois history. ... (she was) undoubtedly Illinois’ first civil rights activist.”

Nance lived to 60 in Pekin, where the local newspaper described her as “a well-known, good neighbor.”

Does Nance deserve a larger place in history? “Yes, she was the Rosa Parks of her day. Her role in abolishing slavery was that important.”

What now? “The Teachers of the Department of Defense schools in Germany are now using it (the book). It’s the only story of Lincoln that is really new. I’d like to see teachers in Illinois schools using it, too.”

“Nance” is available for about $20 at amazon.com and the self-publishing affiliate CreateSpace.com.

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