When 16-year-old Howard Nichols refused to move after a white man ordered, “N—–, get off the sidewalk,” in his Mississippi hometown, his family wasted no time in sending him north on a midnight train. They knew his life was in danger.
In Chicago, he would become the longtime pastor of Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church, 4526 S. Greenwood, and also provide a link in a chain of musical heritage that stretches from Illinois to Canton, Mississippi.
Rev. Nichols, 78, died March 22 at his North Kenwood home.
His brother Claude “Bubba” Nichols was a founding member of the Canton Spirituals, a pioneering gospel group formed in 1943. His daughters, who perform as the Nichols Sisters, excel at blood harmony, the tightly braided singing among family members that can sound like a multitrack recording. They perform on the gospel circuit and at Pleasant Gift and have appeared in a Verizon Wireless TV commercial.
The Nichols Sisters started out vocalizing in the kitchen with their mother, Ruth Hudson Nichols, who is related to Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, who grew up in Rev. Nichols’ church.
Hudson was just 7 when she started belting out gospel songs at Pleasant Gift. Her mother, Darnell Donerson, was a cousin to Ruth Hudson Nichols. Rev. Nichols’ church was the site of a heartfelt plea from Hudson’s sister, Julia, for the safe return of her son, Julian King, after he was abducted in 2008. The church subsequently hosted a memorial after Hudson’s nephew, mother and brother Jason Hudson were found dead, the victims of a triple-homicide that shocked the nation.
In 2009, Hudson called Rev. Nichols’ daughters to join her in a concert at Arie Crown Theater, telling the audience, “I’m going to give you a taste of my family. These are my big cousins.”
Two of them, Krista Alston and Debra Wyndham, also appeared in a Hudson Weight Watchers commercial.
Rev. Nichols was the youngest of eight children in his family and grew up in Canton. His mother, Rosie, was a housewife. His father, Walter, was a cotton gin machinist, said his daughter, Shari Sweat. He grew up during a time when being African-American in the Deep South could mean moments of pure terror.
“He wasn’t afraid, and that was the problem,” his daughter said.
When a white man ordered him to move off the sidewalk so the man could pass, “He stood up to the man,” Shari Sweat said. “He stayed on the sidewalk.”
Friends converged on the family home to advise, “ ‘Mr. Nichols, your son was standing up to a white man, and you better get him out of town.’ ”
“They decided to send him to Chicago on a midnight train to keep him safe,” his daughter said.
In Chicago, he lived near 44th and Indiana. He attended business college and worked at W.F. Hall Printing, once one of the biggest printers of magazines in the country. He also began doing handyman jobs. Eventually, he had his own contracting business and invested in commercial real estate near 46th and King Drive.
A young Howard Nichols.
In 1954, he joined Pleasant Gift church. A cousin introduced him to Ruth Hudson, whose great-grandfather had helped organize the congregation in 1938.
“They said it was love at first sight,” Shari Sweat said.
The couple married in 1955, less than a year after meeting. Both were 18.
He preached his first sermon at Pleasant Gift in 1968. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Roosevelt University, he attended the Chicago Baptist Institute International and continued his religious studies through Harvard University and the University of Chicago, his family said. In 1989, he became head pastor.
His four daughters sang in the choir. “He just loved our singing,” his daughter said. “We sang every Sunday.”
He pushed his four daughters and his son, Howard Jr. “We were guided to church. We were guided to the schools. It was expected that you would excel,” Shari Sweat said. All five went to college.
Rev. Howard Nichols Sr.
When another daughter, Debra Wyndham, was a contestant in beauty pageants — she was Miss Black Illinois 1978 — he drove 900 miles to see her compete. And he made it to every graduation and track-and-field event.
On Valentine’s Day, he sent his daughters candy, no matter where they were. Marva Griffin recalled his care packages when she attended Louisiana’s Grambling State University. “He would always send me a big box of Fannie Mae Pixies,” she said. “We felt loved.”
“My father taught us to be a support system for one another,” said Krista Alston.
“If our car broke down, we would call our dad,” and he’d know how to fix it, Shari Sweat said. If someone’s furnace went out, he might spend the whole night doing repairs. Then, “Saturday or Sunday morning, he would get home, shower, dress and go to church.”
He laid concrete at Pleasant Gift, added a new facade and built a library. Often, he donated materials and labor to help other ministers fix up their churches.
Street corners held no fear for him, his children said, and he fought against the scourge of street gangs.
“They were being destructive in the neighborhood,” Shari Sweat said. “They were standing on corners, being a menace. My father stood up to the gangs when other men were afraid. He was out on the street, saying, ‘You are going to stop terrorizing this neighborhood.’ ”
She said that when he had a stroke at 62, “He fought his way back. He got back to the pulpit.”
He loved the breakfast buffet at Shoney’s so much that his children jokingly called him “Rev. Shoney’s.” On Sundays, the family usually dined at a buffet at the Lake Shore Cafe in Hyde Park or the Grand Lux Cafe at Ontario and Michigan.
And he so adored his mother’s “hard chocolate” cake — a vanilla cake encased in a hard cocoa ganache — that his wife “had to learn how to make that cake,” too, Marva Griffin said.
He especially loved the gospel song “He Looked Beyond My Fault (and Saw My Need),” and the Tramaine Hawkins version of “Changed.”
Rev. Nichols is also survived by 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Services were held Saturday.
Though his family urged the ailing Rev. Nichols to try to hang on for his upcoming 60th wedding anniversary, he knew he wasn’t going to make it:
“He looked at my mom,” Shari Sweat said. “He said, ‘I won’t be there.’
“We were singing to him when he passed — ‘Jesus on the Mainline,’ ” she said. “We were around the bed singing and praying. We sent for some preachers, and they just came in. He was surrounded by 25 people. It was like a band of angels. They said, ‘Brother, we are here, and you know you are in the hands of God.’ He saved his last breath for my mom. He just [said] ‘Mama, Mama.’ And that was it.”