Peoria dedicates freedom memorial at site of historic cemetary

Chronicle Media 

Mayor Rita Ali and Lt. Gov. Stratton pose at the historical plaque for Moffatt Cemetery. (Photo courtesy of city of Peoria)

Local and state dignitaries gathered at 3917 S.W. Adams St. in Peoria on June 14 to ensure the stories of those who contributed to Peoria and United States history are not forgotten.

The dedication of Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park included speakers Mayor Ali, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, Council Member Jackson, Illinois State Historical Society Board member Charles Stanley, Bob Hoffer, Carl Adams, Joe Hutchinson and Rev. Marvin Hightower.

The importance of this parcel in Peoria’s history dates back to1836, when it was part of a larger tract of land granted to Aquilla Moffatt and subsequently became known as Moffatt Cemetery.

Between the 1850s and 1905, more than 2,700 people were buried there on the land, according to the city and Peoria Historical Society, as remains of unknown persons placed in a mass grave after being removed from another Peoria cemetery.

Around 100 individuals are known to have been removed to other cemeteries from 1887-1936, including nine members of the Moffatt family, according to local historic society.

More than 2,600 Peoria residents remain buried at the site, including 49 veterans of the Union Army in the Civil War and some who had connections to the American Revolution.

Colleen Johnson, who served as the executive director of the Peoria Historical Society and worked with the Freedom & Remembrance Memorial Park project team, served as emcee of the ceremony. (Photo courtesy of city of Peoria)

One of the most prominent local people buried there is Nance Legins-Costley, the first enslaved person that Abraham Lincoln helped free when he successfully argued her case before the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841.

Over the years, however, the cemetery and those buried there became forgotten and the Peoria City Board of Health in 1905 ordered its closure. The site was subsequently abandoned and by the 1950s the property was in a state of real neglect.

The landscape was left untended and overgrown, many grave markers had been removed or damaged, and cemetery records were said to be lost, according to the city.

In the 1950s, the old Moffatt Cemetery near the corner of Griswold and Adams on Peoria’s south side was commercially redeveloped.

It was thought that the graves had been moved, but recent research found that not to be true and restoration efforts began, according to the city of Peoria.

A group of local volunteers went into to action to create the Peoria Freedom & Remembrance Memorial, which includes three Illinois State Historical Society markers, a lighted flagpole, and an information storyboard.

The memorial site was donated to the city by the United Union of Roofers Local #69 in February.

The mission of these volunteers was to establish a “fitting tribute to these forgotten citizens of Peoria,” the city stated on its Facebook page.