Jackson County family shares rich family history

Emma Nichols is a freedom seeker who built a life in Jackson County. Her great-great granddaughters currently live in Jackson.
Published: Mar. 15, 2023 at 8:16 PM EDT
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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - In February, News 10 shared the story of Jackson’s rich history involving the Underground Railroad. Now, we share the story of a Jackson County resident whose life was forever changed by unlocking her family history.

“She brought us into this whole world of going from having a father who didn’t have any information. To all of a sudden, opening the door to a family we never knew existed,” said Lezlie Bowles, DEI Unity Council Chair at Baker College.

Bowles is the great-great-granddaughter of former slave Emma Patton Nichols, who sought out freedom. Nichols was born into slavery in 1836 in what is now known as West Virginia.

“She connected with the Underground Railroad and decided to go up north to the free states. By happenstance, she ended up in Jackson, Michigan,” said Linda Hass, with the Jackson County Michigan Historical Society.

Hass researches underrepresented communities. During the 1850s, Emma married Richard Nichols, started a family and built a career as a seamstress. In 2017, Hass reached out to Bowles and her two sisters to relay the good news. They had no idea their life was about to change.

“I tell you, that’s when our whole world changed,” Bowles said. “Linda brought closure, brought information, history - she brought everything into our family.”

“It was hard to grasp that my father’s father had ancestors born here in Jackson,” said Kipp Parker.

Parker is also a descendant of Nichols. Before meeting Hass, she had no idea of her family history.

Their grandmother died when their father was a young child. Growing up, he couldn’t tell his daughters about the family history because he didn’t know himself.

“Knowing that we had a relative that was in the slave or part of the slavery, they escaped. It brought a real impact on my life,” said Parker.

Bowles depicts how things must have been for Nichols, but she looks to her for inspiration.

“I can’t even imagine the fear, but yet the courage,” Bowles said. “See, that’s the key, the courage, and it makes me want to some days when I just feel like I just can’t do it. I think about that. And I can do it.”

“I am proud to be the great-granddaughter of Emma Nichols,” said Parker.

The family wants to remind people to never stop searching for their history.

Emma Nichols is buried in the Mt. Evergreen Cemetery in Jackson, which is one of the historic sites tied to the Underground Railroad. She also has a garden walkway located on West Michigan Avenue dedicated to her and her story.

Related: Jackson’s pivotal role in the Underground Railroad

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