William Henry Costley: Grave Of First Black Male Slave Freed By Abraham Lincoln Found, Researchers Say

Researchers believe they have found the final resting place of the first black male slave freed by Abraham Lincoln in a cemetery at a former Minnesota psychiatric hospital.

William Henry Costley was just 10-months-old when Abraham Lincoln freed him from slavery. Lincoln, a lawyer at the time, won an Illinois Supreme Court case that freed Costley’s mother from indentured servitude. Historians note that indentured servitude was essentially the same as enslavement for women and children at that time. Therefore, when Abraham Lincoln freed Nance Legins-Costley and her son Henry, it would go down in history as the first slaves freed by Lincoln’s actions.

Amateur historian Carl Adams became interested in the case, as it was the first example of Lincoln freeing a slave. While researching Costley, Adams was able to locate with 99.9 percent certainty that he found William Costley’s grave.

According to the Daily Mail, the first black male slave freed by Abraham Lincoln was William Henry Costley. Costley was just 10-months-old when young lawyer Abraham Lincoln took his mother’s case to the Illinois Supreme Court. Lincoln fought for Nance Legins-Costley’s freedom after she had been born into slavery and sold twice during her early life. It was determined that after winning the case, Nance went on to live a long and healthy life of freedom. Despite knowing Nance’s fate, Carl Adams wanted to find out what happened to Nance’s son William.

Therefore, Adams set out to find what happened to the boy who was spared a life of servitude thanks to Abraham Lincoln. In his research, which is published in the book Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln — A True Story of Nance Legins-Costley, Adams traced William’s movement through old military records. Finally, he was able to determine that Costley was likely buried in a Minnesota psychiatric hospital. With the help of a local Minnesota historian, Adams located the grave.

According to his research, William Costley would go on to serve in the U.S. military before being wounded. Costley would later be accused of murdering a man, but the jury found he was innocent as the man murdered was not “reputable.” The defense claimed Costley killed the man to protect a woman. Following the murder trial and not guilty charge, Costley moved to Iowa and eventually Minnesota. With his health declining from his battle wound and a head injury sustained as a teen, Costley was admitted to the Minnesota psychiatric hospital as an invalid. He would die in their care and be buried in the hospital’s cemetery.

The historian says that he is 99.9 percent certain that the grave in Minnesota is that of the first black man freed by Abraham Lincoln that he can say it is “nearly a sure thing.”

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was freeing slaves long before the Emancipation Proclamation or his term as president?

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