Exploring the Lifetime of Jack Yates: The True Story of a Houston Hero

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) – As this nation celebrates June 10th as a national holiday for the first time in its 156-year history, ABC13 introduces you to a Houston icon you may not know.

Many Houstonians who hear the name “Jack Yates” only know Third Ward High School, with its legendary sports teams and famous alumni.

But the man this school was named after is a legend himself. Called the “Father of Black Houston” – he’s a Houston hero who adopted and fundamentally changed Bayou City.

John Henry “Jack” Yates was born a slave in Virginia. When his slave owner’s wife died, Yates’ mother was looking after the master’s house and his little boy, who was the same age as Yates.

His great-granddaughter, Jacqueline Bostic, spoke to Eyewitness News about his playmate, who eventually became his teacher.

“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 he’d learned at school,” said Bostic. “Jack became his student. So that’s how he learned to read and write and do arithmetic.”

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

“You could lose your life or be badly beaten,” said Bostic.

But he wasn’t the only teacher at Yates. The slave owner himself would take Yates on business trips to help him.

“He basically learned how to do business, how to work with others, and make and save money,” said Bostic.

With the money he made, Yates could buy his own freedom from his master. But incredibly, he decided to become a slave again when the neighboring slave owner who owned Yates’ wife Harriet and their three children moved to Matagorda County, Texas.

Historian Portia Hopkins said Texas was open to slave owners despite the ongoing civil war.

“Texas is as far west as possible with slavery and Texas is like the stronghold,” explained Hopkins. “You know, like the newspaper reports in Fort Bend County where the residents said, ‘We don’t give up on our slaves. We don’t care if the Civil War is over. We don’t give up on these slaves.'”

Less than three years later, even Texas had to acknowledge that the Civil War was over when Union soldiers on the 19th President Abraham Lincoln.

It meant that slaves were free, but many had nowhere to go and only had clothes on their backs. Yates saw Houston, a city only a few decades old, a job and an opportunity.

“They didn’t have a home, they had nowhere to go, but they were allowed to settle in Buffalo Bayou and live in tents,” said Bostic.

Plus, Yates had skills that many others didn’t.

Despite being the rare former slave who could read and write, Bostic takes great pride in his desire to share what he has learned about education and economics from his former slave owner, such as their own homes.

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

Yates and his ward founded a town in a town known as Freedmen’s Town. Since Houston was still racially segregated, they had to be self-sufficient.

“It had its own little shop, it had its own little shops, and it had its own schools, its own churches, just what it takes to have a viable church,” said Bostic.

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

Historian Portia Hopkins calls it remarkable.

“He is the house owner until 1871,” she said. “So think about it: five years after that [the Emancipation Proclamation] You can buy a house. This is the amount of investment the Yates family makes in the community. “

But Bostic said Yates wanted so much more than 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 didn’t want to just keep this information to himself. It was about making sure the people he knew, the community he came from, they were now freed from slavery so they could live as citizens like other people. “

Helping build Freedmen’s Town wasn’t his only mission.

One of the first institutions Yates took over was a church that started on the banks of Buffalo Bayou and then a building near what is now Houston City Hall. The third building they erected is still standing today.

The Antioch Missionary Baptist Church is the oldest black Baptist church in Houston and is celebrating its 155th anniversary this year. It’s still in the same place, surrounded by huge downtown skyscrapers.

As the first pastor, Yates, with the help of other freed slaves, helped build the Church from the ground up. Every bench there is handmade.

But Bostic said Yates wanted more than just a nice place to pray for his members.

“He taught during the day and preached in the evening,” she said.

Yates himself learned to read and write as a boy and now wanted to share this critical knowledge with others. Hopkins said the church is the easiest place to teach from the perspective of white residents.

“The main support for the black community should be the church, and through those churches we had access to information, but we also had a building and a means to educate the people,” said Hopkins.
Bostic said, “I don’t think anyone really cared too much about what they were doing because they were in a church.”

Bostic believes Yates wanted to teach as much as possible.

“He was keen to make sure they learned the skills he was getting,” she said. “Not just about the Bible, but also about reading, writing, arithmetic, carpentry, all kinds of skills that you can use to start your own business.”

What Yates didn’t expect was that classes in his church would get so crowded – for both adults and children.

“The children were taught during the day and the adults were taught at night, and as the schools grew or the desire for education grew, they really couldn’t take more people into the church,” she recalls.

So Yates took the next step to build another institution.

Together with other business people, he decided in 1885, almost two decades after emancipation, to open the first school for blacks.

It was called the Houston Academy or Colored High School. It is now known as Booker T. Washington High School.

“At this point, you know, he’s all grown up and still working, he gets up in the morning thinking about how he can keep helping the community raise, raise children,” Hopkins said.

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

“This is really going to be a community-led effort,” said Hopkins. “You know, we’re going to buy the books together, we’re going to pay the teacher. We’re going to make sure the kids get the best education possible.”

Another memorial to Yates’ love of education still stands today. The second Houston Black High School was named after him in 1926, and Bostic said he would be proud to know that Jack Yates High School continues to teach students in Houston’s Historic Third Ward.

“I’m proud that it’s still there and that people are still getting a good education and that they are graduating and being members of the community,” she said. “That is very good for me.”

There’s one last institution that Yates co-founded in Houston, and it was a place to celebrate the most important day of their lives: the day Texan slaves learned they were free.

June 19 was originally known as Texas Emancipation Day, then Juneteenth. For ex-slaves it was a holy day with great celebrations.

“There wasn’t a Juneteenth that wasn’t celebrated,” said Bostic. “Freedom was extremely important to the people back then to celebrate their freedom. It was so important to them that they were no longer enslaved.”

To celebrate June 15th, despite the stifling heat in Houston, people wore their best.

“They had beautiful parades and horses and buggies and carriages,” said Bostic. “It was a big party.”

But since Houston was still strictly segregated, there were very few places to go.

“Back then, African Americans didn’t have a public space to freely enter,” Hopkins said. “All public spaces were separate and they were excluded from the experience of public parks.”

Bostic said her great-grandfather tried unsuccessfully to buy a property several times. In fact, it took seven years and $ 1,000 to buy 10 acres in what is now the Third Ward.

“Two churches, Antioch and Trinity, have teamed up and pooled their money to begin buying the park,” explained Bostic. “And when they started buying the park, they wanted to make it a legal entity so that it couldn’t be stolen from them at a later date.”

They called it Emancipation Park, a name that still stands today.

“They had a big party in the community, but they wanted a place to go that they considered their own,” Hopkins said.

Emancipation Park is now a city park and was renovated four years ago for $ 40 million.

At its core, however, it’s still the park that Yates built. Lucy Bremond is now the park’s executive director and said the park officials kept the spirit of the park alive.

“We took this rendering and 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 would be a generational legacy I leave behind – not just for my family and children, but for my children’s children as well,” Hopkins said of Yates. “When I come to this park and bring this park to my children, I just think of all the happy memories that happened here, you know, and that we really are on sacred ground when we get to Emancipation Park.”

It’s even more emotional for Bremond.

“It only tears me apart because I think about my ancestors 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 continues.

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

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

“It’s part of the story of our whole story,” said Bostic. “It’s part of the history of Houston. She wanted to make sure the story wasn’t lost for giving so much to this city of all races, all groups could know and understand what the story of Houston is about. I really think he left his mark. That’s why Houston is the kind of city where all kinds of people work together. “

So what would Bostic like to see in Houston to honor Yates?

“Maybe a statue somewhere,” she replied modestly.

Given his tremendous contribution to this city, he certainly deserves one.

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