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“Emma Nichols Garden” Tribute To Former Slave Who Settled In Jackson

Sign at the entryway of Victory Lane will soon be changed to Emma Nichols Garden.  JTV Photo.

The Jackson City Council Tuesday night approved the renaming of Victory Lane in Downtown Jackson to “Emma Nichols Garden” to honor a Jackson resident who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad.

In 2004, the site of the former Stillman Department Store was developed and designated as Victory Lane to recognize Jackson’s Indy racing history.  The space, between 151 West Michigan and 159 West Michigan Avenue has undergone several structural changes due to building improvements to the two neighboring buildings, along with infrastructure changes because of a collapsed sewer underneath the pavement. Signage in the alley also had to be removed due to vandalism.

Over the past few weeks,  Victory Lane has undergone major changes.  A new walking path has been added that connects W. Michigan Avenue to an improved parking lot behind City Hall. This path is surrounded by trees and other landscaping. A patio has been added to the alley that can be utilized by the building on the east side of the alley, which will soon feature a new restaurant, Veritas. A new mural from the Bright Walls Mural Festival is also planned on the side of the restaurant building.  Further improvements include Tivoli-style lighting, similar to the lighting in Horace Blackman Park.

According to City Manager Patrick Burtch, the revitalization of the alley requires a new name designation. Burtch recommended the name “Emma Nichols Garden” after gathering input from city staff.    

Emma Nichols, an African-American woman, was born a slave in Virginia in 1830. Recent research by Jackson historian Linda Hass discovered Emma Nichols escaped slavery in Virginia, and came to Jackson on the Underground Railroad seeking freedom. Jackson has been identified as an active stop on the Underground Railroad, with white residents aiding escaped slaves. Nichols and her husband Richard made Jackson their home, living in a house on Biddle Street for their remaining years. Emma Nichols died in 1916, and is buried in Mt. Evergreen Cemetery. Her descendants are still living in the Jackson community. Also buried in the cemetery are white residents who assisted in the Underground Railroad in Jackson. Due to their contributions to history, the Mt. Evergreen Cemetery recently received a State of Michigan Historical Marker, and was listed on the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom, a nationwide program that identifies historic sites important to the Underground Railroad.

According to Burtch, “Designating Victory Lane as “Emma Nichols Garden” will celebrate the bravery and legacy of Nichols, and other people who sought freedom in our community. It also honors Jackson residents who risked their own lives by assisting the Underground Railroad and helping others achieve freedom. Renaming the alley for Emma Nichols also reflects the diversity of the community, and further promote inclusivity in our public spaces.”

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