John Henry “Jack” Yates was born in Gloucester County, Virginia, on July 11, 1828. His parents were Robert and Rachel Yates. When Mrs. Fields, Rachel’s mistress, died, Rachel was given charge of the Fields child. Eventually, the Fields child taught Jack to read, which was illegal at that time. Jack would slip away at night to read his Bible and songbook. While in slavery, he learned carpentry skills and also made extra money fishing. He attended the slaves’ religious services and became a Christian. Jack married Harriet Willis from a nearby plantation and they had 11 children. Unable to bear separation from his family when Harriet’s master moved to Matagorda County, Texas, Jack asked for and was granted permission to go along with them.
After emancipation, in June 1865, Yates moved his family to Houston so he could look for work. Yates became a drayman, or delivery cart driver. At night and on Sundays he was a Baptist preacher. He also did work for the Home Missionary Society. After the Civil War, freed men and women began moving to Houston. In 1866, Yates organized Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and it was the first black Baptist church in Houston. Yates oldest child, Martha, cooked for the brick masons, carpenters, and laborers who constructed the church building. In 1872, under Yates’s leadership, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church purchased Emancipation Park on Dowling Street for the black community to use. After a remodeling dispute, Yates left Antioch and organized Bethel Baptist Church in 1891. A century later, in May 1991, the Queen of England visited Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.
Yates bought several lots on Andrews Street in 1869, less than five years after his emancipation. He helped organize the first Baptist association for blacks in Houston and the Old Land Mark Association. In 1885, Yates organized a school for black children, the Houston Academy. He was instrumental in bringing Bishop Academy, the first Baptist College, to Texas. Located in Marshall, it helped prepare students for employment in business, ministry, and trades.
After Harriet Yates died, Yates remarried. He and his second wife, Annie Freeman, had one child.
Jack Yates died on December 22, 1897, and is buried in Houston in College Park Cemetery. In 1926, Jack Yates High School was named in his honor. In 1994, his home on Andrews Street was moved to Sam Houston Park and was restored to its original 1870s design and furnishings. The house is open to the public through the Harris County Heritage Society.