Charley Springer and Nancy Thompson: Unveiling their Forgotten Legacy
With the opening of Oak Dale Cemetery in 1856, the Trustees of the time passed a resolution restricting sections 2 and 3 as the only locations where lots could be purchased by the “colored” citizens of the community. At the time, the resolution also stated no other lots in the new cemetery outside these two areas should be sold to Black residents. Sections 2 and 3 are in the extreme southeastern corner of what would be the original boundaries of Oak Dale Cemetery and away from what would have been deemed as the more appealing locations on the grounds. Today, Oak Dale Cemetery is no longer segregated and more lots in sections 1, 9, 10, 17 and 18 were opened across from sections 2 and 3 to provide the African American citizens of Urbana more space to bury their dead in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Spread across these adjacent sections of the Oak Dale are hundreds of graves of Urbana and Champaign County African Americans. Many of their final resting places are unmarked and their stories lost or forgotten. At least one of those spaces is the grave site of Mrs. Nancy Springer who died at the age of 49 in Salem Township just north of Urbana in 1883. Her grave is unmarked in Section 1. Her husband, “Charley Springer” was 23 years her senior and he would pass away in 1885. But, according to local reporting from the era, Charley Springer was an alias with his real name being William Taylor he had not used in years after being on the run as a fugitive slave up through the Civil War. There are many former enslaved citizens in Oak Dale Cemetery, but Charley Springer’s tale is one that particularly illustrates the pains of slavery that separated families. Charley was residing in Champaign County by the early 1850s and was here when the Civil War broke out. Charley was also employed by an Urbana military officer to be his cook when the local soldier was stationed in the South.
Charley’s life account appeared in the Urbana Citizen and Gazette in 1885 shortly following his death, and if it is accurate, it could mean that Charley is the nephew of American President and General, Zachary Taylor. The narrative on Charley’s life states his father was Major James Taylor who was a brother to Zachary, but President Taylor did not have a brother named James. Could it be a typo or error in information/memory? We may never know. We can say Nancy Thompson and Charley Springer were married in Champaign County in 1852. She would have been around 17 at the time, and he was around 40. By 1859 Charley Springer was working as a laborer. He resided on East Market Street, east of Kenton. His wife Nancy is listed as a servant on Scioto Street, east of the Square. By 1860, Charley was living in Harrison Township with a mulatto family by the name of “Taborn”. In 1870 and 1880 the Springers were residing in Salem Township. Both are listed as “mulatto”, and neither could read or write according to the census of the time.
The article chronicling Charley’s tragic life and escape to freedom to Ohio is very detailed, and rather than trying to summarize all the information here, we offer it in its entirety to be read on your own. Again, we cannot confirm all the details, but we can at least give a glimpse at Charley’s life in Champaign County before and after the Civil War down to the white horse Springer was often seen riding through the community while tipping his hat to passersby. Another item of note that can be gathered from the article is Charley’s aka “William Taylor’s” grave has been lost. The author of the Urbana newspaper article mentions Charley was buried in the infirmary cemetery south of Urbana. A cemetery did exist to the east of the property as shown in the 1874 Champaign County Atlas. The Oak Dale Index files do not have Charley listed being buried in Oak Dale under the name of Springer or Taylor in 1885. Given Charley’s notoriety in the community, it is not clear why he was not buried in Oak Dale. Should Charley Springer, aka “William Taylor’s” final resting place be lost, we hope by sharing his story, the memory of he and Nancy are not.