Born in 1822, Joshua Houston was raised as a slave on the Lea plantation near Marion, Alabama. When his master, Temple Lea, died in 1834, ownership of Joshua was transferred to Temple's daughter, Margaret Lea. There seems to have been little change in Joshua's situation, however, until Margaret married Sam Houston in 1840. At that time, Joshua became the property of the most well-known man in Texas, and he soon helped Margaret move to her newly adopted state.
During the 1840s, Joshua learned to read and write, and he became a skilled craftsman. In fact, he used his talents as a blacksmith to help build the Houston home at Raven Hill, thirteen miles east of Huntsville, Texas. Joshua also served the Houston family in a number of other capacities. He repeatedly helped the Houston's move, transferring furniture, books, and other property from Cedar Point and Huntsville to Washington-on-the Brazos, Austin, Independence, and for a time even to Washington D.C. These moves required diligent preparation and a skillful hand as a blacksmith and wheelwright.
Beginning some time around 1850, Sam Houston allowed Joshua to hire out as a stage driver and blacksmith to make money of his own. There was only a small profit to be made in such a situation, however, and it was not until 1862 that Joshua's lot changed for good. That fall, after reading about Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Sam Houston freed Joshua and his other slaves, encouraging them to go out into the wider world. Most of the slaves stayed with Sam Houston until his death in July 1863, however, and a few of them even traveled with Margaret when she moved to Independence later that year.
After the Civil War, Joshua entered an exciting new stage of his life, becoming one of Walker County's leading African American figures. In January 1866, he purchased a tract of land on 10th Street in Huntsville for $120 from Micajah Clark Rogers, the first mayor of the city. In a short time, Joshua had his own two-story house with a blacksmith shop across the street. In fact, his neighborhood grew quickly, and it became known as Rogersville for the beneficent white ally the city's African Americans had in Micajah Rogers.
As Joshua's business developed he played a key role in the local African American church. In April 1867, he joined with William Baines and Strother Green as "trustees for the Freed people's church in the Town of Huntsville." For $50, Joshua and his friends bought property three blocks from the local square, and they became founding member of the new Union Church, which was the first black-owned church in the city. The Union Church served both Baptists and Methodists, and it was also the site of one of the earliest black schools in Huntsville. As Patricia Prather and Jane Monday have argued, "This became the first institution in Huntsville owned collectively by ex-slaves and thus subject to their control. It became much more than a religious institution. Freedmen often met there to share information about how to protect themselves and their families. The church also became an education center where both children and adults began learning to read the Bible and the few other books that were available to them."
Although Joshua no doubt loved the Union Church, the congregation soon grew too large and diverse for a single location. The church split into three separate groups in January 1869. The Methodist Episcopal congregation founded St. James Methodist Episcopal Church at the “Union” site at 14th Street and Avenue M. Members of the African Methodist Episcopal faith founded Allen Chapel AME church on Avenue I and 11th Street a few years later. Meanwhile, Joshua and several dozen other Baptists established the First Baptist Church on 10th Street in Rogersville. It was there that Joshua emerged as a deacon and one of the city's leading figures during Reconstruction.
Although he was busy with church and business obligations, Joshua's public duties took on an additional dimension in 1867, when he was appointed as Huntsville's first African American alderman. As a well-known black Republican and the former slave of a Union sympathizer, Joshua was the type of man Republicans in Texas wanted for their ranks. He was literate; he owned his own business; and he was recognized as a leader in his local community. As the Republican Party enacted a new Military Reconstruction program to stamp out discriminatory state laws and secure a new state constitution, Joshua joined forces with the party at the local level. He was reappointed to the alderman's position in 1870 and was later elected, under the new Texas Constitution, as a county commissioner in 1878 and 1882. Perhaps his greatest political endeavor came in 1888, when he served as a member of the Texas delegation to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.
Despite his important work in the political arena, it was in education that Joshua made his most lasting impact. He had been a founding trustee of the first African American school in Huntsville at the Union Church. He was a friend and supporter of the six freedmen--Richard Williams, Joseph Morris, Allen Justice, Green Justice, Sam Sims, and Anderson Bates--who founded a school at Grant's colony, a few miles west of Huntsville. And, Joshua Houston was among a group of thirty or so activists--including Memphis Allen, Alex Wynne, Will Mills, Strother Green, John Wilson, and William Kittrell--who founded and promoted Bishop Ward College in 1883. Although the school failed two years later, due to a lack of funds, Joshua's children and others their age received an enormous jolt from the short-lived project. In fact, it may have been at Bishop Ward that Joshua's son, Samuel Walker Houston, met Professor C.W. Luckie, who encouraged the young boy to pursue his education outside the state of Texas.
By the time Joshua died on January 8, 1902, he had been married three times -- to Anneliza, Mary Green, and Sylvester Baker -- and he had eight children. He provided a formal education for all his children and also helped them and other community members purchase land for homes, churches, and schools. Joshua's contributions made a difference not only in his life but in the lives of others who lived in Walker County.