Exploring the life of Jack Yates: The true story of a Houston hero

Melanie Lawson Image
Saturday, June 19, 2021
Get to know Jack Yates: The father of Black Houston
ABC13's Melanie Lawson explores the legacy of Jack Yates, the man who we've dubbed the "Father of Black Houston."

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As this nation celebrates Juneteenth as a national holiday for the first time in its 156-year history, ABC13 is introducing you to a Houston icon you may not know.

Many Houstonians who hear the name "Jack Yates" only know about the high school in Third Ward, filled with its legendary sports teams and famous alumni.

But the man for whom that school was named is a legend himself. He's dubbed the "Father of Black Houston" - he's a Houston hero who adopted the Bayou City and changed it profoundly.

John Henry "Jack" Yates was born a slave in Virginia. When the wife of his slave owner died, Yates' mother took care of the master's house and his little boy, who was the same age as Yates.

His great-granddaughter, Jacqueline Bostic, spoke with Eyewitness News about his playmate who ended up becoming his teacher.

ABC13's Melanie Lawson spoke with Jack Yates' great-granddaughter about the man who we've dubbed the "Father of Black Houston."

"When the other boy went to school, when he came home in the evening, when he and Jack went to play, he taught Jack everything that he learned in school," said Bostic. "Jack became his pupil. So, that was how he learned how to read and write and arithmetic."

The problem was that these were very dangerous skills for a slave.

"You could lose your life or be severely beaten," said Bostic.

But he wasn't Yates' only teacher. The slave owner himself would take Yates on business trips to help out.

"He learned, basically, how to do business, how to work with other people, and take money and save it," said Bostic.

With the money he earned, Yates was able to buy his own freedom from his master. But incredibly, he chose to become a slave again when the neighboring slave owner who owned Yates' wife, Harriet, and their three children moved to Matagorda County in Texas.

Historian Portia Hopkins said Texas was open to slave owners despite the Civil War raging on.

"Texas is as far west as you can go with slavery and Texas is like the stronghold," Hopkins explained. "You know, like the newspaper reports in Fort Bend County where the residents said, 'We're not giving up our slaves. We don't care if the Civil War is over. We're not giving up these slaves.'"

Less than three years later, even Texas had to recognize the Civil War was over when Union soldiers made their way to Galveston on June 19th, 1865 to read the Emancipation Proclamation - a full two-and-a-half years after it was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

It meant slaves were free, but many had nowhere to go and only had the clothes on their back. Yates saw Houston, a city only a few decades old, as a place of work and opportunity.

"They had no homes, they had nowhere to go, but they were allowed to settle on Buffalo Bayou and they lived in tents," said Bostic.

Plus, Yates had skills many others did not.

While he was the rare former slave who could read and write, Bostic is most proud of his desire to share what he'd learned about education and business from his former slave owner such as learning how to build homes and how to buy property and have their own homes.

"He would help them to buy the property, make sure that they made the payments, and make sure the taxes were paid," Bostic said.

Yates and his community formed a city within a city known as Freedmen's Town. Because Houston was still racially segregated, they had to be self-sufficient.

"It had its own little store, it had its own little shops, and it had its own schools, its own churches, just what you needed to have to have a viable community," said Bostic.

Yates built his own home for his wife Harriet and eventually, his 10 children. It was the first two-story house owned by a Black man in Houston. It now sits in Sam Houston Heritage Park near downtown.

Historian Portia Hopkins calls it remarkable.

"By 1871, he's a homeowner," she said. "So think about this: five years after [the Emancipation Proclamation] you're able to purchase a home. This is the level of investment that the Yates family has in the community."

But Bostic said Yates wanted so much more than just his own success.

"He believed in sharing what he had with others," she said. "He wanted people to have the opportunity to see and know what could be done. So he did not want to just keep that information to himself. It was about making sure that the people that he knew, the community that he came out of, they were now freed from slavery, that they could live as citizens as other people live."

Helping to build Freedmen's Town was not his only mission.

One of the first institutions Yates took on was a church beginning on the banks of Buffalo Bayou then a building near where Houston City Hall is now. The third building they constructed still stands today.

Houston has several landmarks built by former slaves. Many were envisioned by Jack Yates, who wanted his newly-freed people to become full citizens of Houston. ABC13's Melanie Lawson explores how that church changed the lives of so many.

Antioch Missionary Baptist church is the oldest black Baptist church in Houston and this year, it's celebrating its 155th anniversary. It still sits in the same location surrounded by huge skyscrapers downtown.

As its first pastor, Yates helped build the church from the ground up with the help of other freed slaves. Every pew there is hand crafted.

But Bostic said Yates wanted even more for his members than simply a beautiful place to pray.

"He would teach during the day and preach during the evening," she said.

Yates himself learned to read and write as a boy and now he wanted to share that critical knowledge with others. Hopkins said the church was the easiest place to teach out of the view of white residents.

"The main support for the Black community was going to be the church, and through those churches, we had access to information but we also had a building and means to educate people," said Hopkins.

Bostic said, "I don't think anybody was really too concerned about what they were doing because they were in a church."

Bostic believes Yates was driven to teach as many as he could.

"He was interested in making sure that they learn the skills that he had acquired," she said. "Not only about the Bible, but reading, writing, math, carpentry, different kinds of skills that they could use to start their own businesses."

What Yates didn't expect was that classes at his church would get so crowded - for both adults and children.

As a minister, Jack Yates wanted everyone to learn how to survive and thrive in their new world.

"The children were taught during the day and the adults were taught at night, and as the schools grew, or the desire to be educated grew, they really couldn't fit more people into the church," she recalled.

So Yates took the next step to build another institution.

Along with other businessmen, he decided to open the first school for Blacks in 1885, nearly two decades after Emancipation.

It was called Houston Academy or Colored High School. It's now known as Booker T. Washington High School.

"By this time he's, you know, up in age and he's still working, he's getting up in the morning, he's thinking about ways that he can continue to help educate the community, help educate children," said Hopkins.

But because of segregation, the state would not fund a Black school, so once again, former slaves had to do it on their own.

"This is really going to be a community-led effort," Hopkins said. "You know, we're going to collectively buy the books, we're going to pay the teacher. We're going to ensure that the kids are getting the best education that they can."

Another monument to Yates' love for education still stands. The second Black high school in Houston was named for him in 1926, and Bostic said he would be proud to know Jack Yates High School continues to teach students in Houston's Historic Third Ward.

"I'm proud of the fact that it's still there and that people are still getting a good education and that they're graduating and they're being contributing members of the community," she said. "That makes me feel very good."

There's one last institution that Yates is credited with helping to create in Houston and that was a place to celebrate the most important day of their lives: the day Texas slaves learned they were free.

June 19th was originally known as Emancipation Day in Texas, then Juneteenth. For former slaves, it was a sacred day with huge celebrations.

"There wasn't a Juneteenth that passed that was not a celebration," Bostic said. "Freedom was extremely important to the people of that time, to be celebrating their freedom. It was so important to them that they were no longer enslaved."

To celebrate Juneteenth, people wore their very best, despite the stifling Houston heat.

"They had beautiful parades and horses and buggies and carriages," said Bostic. "It was a big celebration."

But because Houston was still strictly segregated, there were very few places they could go.

"At the time, African Americans didn't have a public space that they were free to go to," said Hopkins. "All the public spaces were segregated, and they were excluded from experiencing public parks."

Bostic said her great-grandfather tried buying property several times without luck. In fact, it took seven years and $1,000 to buy 10 acres in what is now Third Ward.

"Two churches, Antioch and Trinity, came together and they pooled their money to start buying the park," Bostic explained. "And once they started buying the park, then they wanted to make it a legal entity so that it could not be taken from them by somebody at a later time."

They named it Emancipation Park, a name that still stands.

"They had a big celebration in the community, but they wanted a place they could go that they considered their own," said Hopkins.

Emancipation Park is now a city park, and underwent a $40 million renovation four years ago.

At its core, however, it's still the park Yates built. Lucy Bremond is now the executive director of the park and said park officials did to keep the spirit of the park alive.

"We took this rendering and we wanted to put it here because we wanted people to see this whole look and feel of Juneteenth," she said.

"In 1872, Jack Yates knew this is going to be a generational legacy that I'm leaving - not just for my family and my children, but for my children's children," Hopkins said of Yates. "When I come to this park, and I bring my children this park, I just think about all of those happy memories that happened here, you know, and that we really are standing on hallowed ground when we come to Emancipation Park."

For Bremond, it's even more emotional.

"It just tears me up because I think about my forefathers and what they went through for us, to make this world a better place," she said.

A century-and-a-half later, the battle for racial equality marches on.

In an incredible twist of fate, George Floyd - the man whose murder made the world take to the streets - was a graduate of Jack Yates High School.

We asked Bostic why her late mother and the entire Yates family has worked so hard to preserve his history.

"It's part of the story of all our history," Bostic said. "It's a part of the story of Houston's history. She wanted to make sure that the story did not get lost, because he gave so much to this city. It's important to me because he gave of himself to this community to make sure that people of all races, all groups could know and understand what the history of Houston is about. I really think he left an imprint. That's why Houston is the kind of city where all kinds of people work together."

So what would Bostic like to see happen in Houston to help honor Yates.

"Maybe a statue somewhere," she replied modestly.

Given his enormous contributions to this city, he certainly deserves one.

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