Photo Caption- Author Linda Hass (far left) with Jackson community members whose ancestors’ stories are featured in her book, Hidden in Plain Sight: The Underground Railroad in Jackson County.
About four years ago, June 30, 2017, I was contacted via Baker College email by someone I did not know.
The email stated:
Greetings Ms. Bowles,
I’m a Jackson resident and writer working on a book sequel about the Underground Railroad in Jackson County. My research has led me to your family, and I’m hoping we could get together sometime in the next couple weeks so I could share what I’ve found with you, and also learn any information you could share with me. Perhaps we can meet at Baker College during office hours, or at a JDL branch near you? Feel free to e-reply or call. I look forward to hearing from you.
Little did I know this person, Linda Hass, would forever change my life.
This local historian informed me that I was the great-great-granddaughter of freedom seekers who resisted slavery by fleeing Virginian plantations and traveling to Jackson, Michigan, via the Underground Railroad. I had read about the secret system that transported freedom seekers from slave states in the South to free states in the North and other countries, but I never dreamed I would have such a personal connection to it! My first reaction to this important news was disbelief. I immediately contacted my 2 sisters, Barbara (Jeannie) Parker and Kipp M. Parker, and shared this email. They too were in disbelief. After much discussion, they both encouraged me to contact Linda.
My e-mail response to Linda was:
Good Morning Linda,
I’m excited to know that my family is connected to the Underground Railroad. I’m not sure how much information I can share with you but I would love to meet with you. I have (2) sisters that may want to share in this information also…if you are open to it. Let’s plan in the next few days to schedule a time/place to share.
Looking forward to meeting you.
Linda responded by sending another email:
Thanks for your reply. Let’s meet after lunch, anytime between 1-2 p.m. I’m very flexible on Saturday, so whatever time works best for you and your family. Do you want to meet upstairs at the Jackson Coffee Co? Or, we could meet at my house, or really anywhere you would like.
I’ve attached photos that show the Mt. Evergreen Cemetery grounds crew helping me locate the unmarked grave site of Emma Nichols. Emma was the wife of Richard George Nichols, who arrived in Jackson via the Underground Railroad. Carrie was their daughter. The crew located Emma’s grave site based on cemetery records and their GPS system. I put a flag on the site, so people don’t walk all over it. I may stop at a monument shop just to see if they have a spare headstone for this unmarked grave. I’ll let you know what I find when we meet Saturday!
Documentation that Verifies My Claim:
The researcher, Linda Hass, shared with my sisters and I the earlier newspaper articles, city directories, obituaries, and other documents proving these were my ancestors. Emma Patton Nichols and Richard Nichols arrived in Jackson around the 1850’s. Rather than journeying on to Canada, they married, started a family, and established careers in Jackson, Michigan.
Richard Nichols worked as a successful barber for a business called “Nicholas & Smith Barbers.” Early maps show the shop, in the “Tremont House Saloon,” was located somewhere between One Jackson Square, West Michigan Avenue, and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Directories also list Emma Nichols as a “seamstress.” They lived on Biddle Street, and are buried in Mt. Evergreen Cemetery, close to Morrell Street in Jackson, Michigan. I’ve worked on Biddle street, and I’ve passed this cemetery my entire life and never had a clue that my family on my father’s, Harry A. Bowles, side was that close to me. I think about the holidays that I could have visited their graves and paid my respect to my family with flowers and perpetual care at their resting place.
My Personal Reaction to my Great-Great Grandparents:
The newspaper article in which my great-grandmother, Carrie (Nichols) Bowles, was interviewed, said that her parents- Richard and Emma Nichols- “fled northward, fearsomely, furtively, with the hue and cry of a hunter’s pack behind them.” I can’t imagine what that must have been like for them! Did they hide under canvas covers for hours in wagons that lumbered along bumpy roads? Did they use the North Star for celestial navigation as they made their way North? Did their hearts beat so loud that they were afraid it might be heard?
When I reflect, I think, “my God how frightening yet courageous they were!” They both must have known in their lives to come that “For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” I truly admire them for their bravery and courage.
As I reflect back upon my life’s journey, the irony of it all is that I became an educator. I also am in awe of the wonderful irony that, as the great-great granddaughter of escaped slaves who were forbidden to read and write, I have spent 12 years as an educator for Jackson Public Schools, eight years as CAO/Elementary Principal for Jackson Arts and Technology Academy, and seven years at Baker College. I wonder what my ancestors would have said if they knew that the very educational benefits that they were denied, have so well served their descendants? Perhaps, that is among reasons they decided to make the perilous journey, to not only benefit themselves, but their descendants.
I’ve often wondered what I would tell them if I could sit down in a cozy corner of my living room and chat with them. Maybe we would speak about how different our lives are? What must it feel like to be free? Mostly, I would be proud to tell them that the quest for freedom they undertook so secretly is celebrated openly today, that the better life they dreamed of living is unfolding as we progress. We are not to a point of perfection, but we can appreciate how much better off we are now than they were then.
Given the chance, I would proudly take my ancestors on a tour of Jackson and show them the state historical marker at Mt. Evergreen Cemetery in which their names and their bravery are literally cast in iron. I would tell them of the warm spring day in 2019 when the local researcher, Linda Hass, and I unveiled the marker honoring not only their final resting place but the burial sites of other local men and women who participated in the Underground Railroad.
I would then take them to downtown Jackson, and we would stroll along “Emma Nichols’ Garden,” a walkway off West Michigan Avenue, enlivened by roses, flowering bushes, murals and more. A delightful space named in honor of great-great grandmother Emma! If possible, I would invite them to the Ganton Art Gallery, in Spring Arbor, Michigan, where an exhibit called “Hidden History Brought To Light” honors them and other abolitionists for Black History Month 2022. In this gallery, I would point out the quilt made in my great-great grandmother’s Emma’s honor, hanging proudly on the south wall, and the nearby framed sketch of my great–great grandparents Richard and Emma created by local artist Brianne Witt. (There was no picture of my great-great grandmother Emma, so the researcher Linda Hass gave Brianne Witt a picture of my sister’s and I and from that picture our great-great grandmother Emma Nichols’ picture was created). Now when I look at her picture, I see my father, sisters, and myself.
As I reflect on the long and winding trail that brought my freedom-loving ancestors to Jackson, Michigan, emotions flood my heart–the Value of God’s Blessing, many tears, gratefulness, appreciation, and most of all love. I can’t help but see the hand of God guiding and directing, working all things for His good.
My continued hope and prayers for the next generations are that they will also reach for the stars, be willing to take worthwhile risks, and be fruitful in whatever they put their hearts and hands to.
I’m extremely grateful to God for leading me to Baker College. Baker College is proud to salute Black History Month as well as ALL cultures and diverse backgrounds. I’ve had the opportunity to invite researcher Linda Hass to Baker College Jackson to share my history with our faculty, staff, and students. My journey here at Baker College has allowed me many blessings.
These are (2) of my favorite quotes that I try to live by:
- “If my mind can conceive it, my heart can believe it, I can achieve it.”
- “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”