The original version of this story was written by Holly Beretto and published in the Winter 2015 issue of downtown Magazine.
Our celebration of Black History Month continues with a spotlight on an iconic figure in Houston history, Reverend John Henry “Jack” Yates. Nearly 200 years after he was born, the life and legacy of the freedman, minister and community leader continues to impact the lives of Houston residents and Texans alike.
Jack Yates was born on July 11, 1828 in Gloucester County, VA to two enslaved parents. Despite the education of slaves being prohibited, Yates learned to read, write and do math thanks to secret lessons from the slave owner’s son. Throughout his childhood, he worked on the farm and attended religious gatherings organized by other enslaved people.
Yates later married Harriet Willis, an enslaved woman from a neighboring farm. Shortly after, her master moved to a plantation in Matagorda County, TX to avoid emancipation and continue life as a slaveholder. Yates was freed in 1863, but then he did an odd thing.
“His wife was owned by a man who was moving to Texas, because Texas was holding onto slavery,” says Jacqueline Bostic, the great-granddaughter of the Reverend Jack Yates. “He got the slave master to agree to take him as well because he wanted to be able to care for his wife and family.”
As you may know, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all of the slaves owned by Confederate landowners in 1863; however, many wouldn’t receive the news until 1865 after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t officially make its way to Texas until June 19, 1865 [aka Juneteenth].
Yates had heard that the Bayou City was more welcoming, so after hearing the news of their freedom, he packed up his family and headed north. Like so many others who would come after them, they found a new way of life here in Houston. And, like so many who came after them, they would build their dreams here.
Bostic says they settled on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. He worked as a drayman, hauling goods for merchants and shippers. Yates began to save his money, set on buying a home. And, on the weekends, he would bring fellow Houston settlers together to read the Bible.
Meanwhile, a group of free slaves founded what would become Antioch church on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Assisted by missionaries from the First Baptist Church and the German Baptist Church, they built a “brush arbor” as their first worship space in January 1866. The following spring, the community built a more permanent structure on the corner of Rusk and Bagby Streets and christened it Baptist Hill. The group, led by Reverend Israel Campbell, combined with other black Baptists to form The Old Land Mark Baptist District Association. This association would ordain Jack Yates as a preacher in the fall of 1868. Shortly after, he was named the first full-time pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Under his leadership, the current church would come to be. But Pastor Yates knew the church could be much more than a place to gather for prayer and restore wounded souls. He wanted his congregation to be wholly integrated into Houston’s society.
Realizing that education was a way to help the congregation thrive, the church’s first decades under Pastor Yates saw the establishment of the first kindergarten for African American children, as well as laying the foundation for the city’s first high school for black students [Booker T. Washington High School]. Yates also helped congregation members secure loans to purchase homes and helped them learn how to manage their finances and set up businesses.
Today, nearly 500 members of the church worship, learn and provide assistance to the community around the small Gothic church. The church has a thriving scholarship program, a nod to its founders’ insistence on education and self-improvement.
Another important Yates contribution? His home. One of the first two-story residences for a black family, the Yates house originally stood at 1318 Andrews Street in the Fourth Ward. Jack and his brother built the house in 1870, a mere five years after the family emerged from slavery. Located in the heart of Freedman’s Town, the five-square-mile space named for the freed slaves that established it, the home was a gathering place both during his lifetime and after his death in 1897.
In 1994, the Yates family donated the house to The Heritage Society. It now stands in Sam Houston Park and continues to inform visitors of Yates’ impact on the community.
Want to learn more? Check out our original story on the history of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church here. We also recommend signing up for a docent-led private tour of the Yates House, Kellum-Noble House and the Fourth Ward Cottage.