Nestled in the midst of skyscrapers and the hustle and bustle of the busy metropolitan of Houston, Texas, lies an inconspicuous, hidden historical gem, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. The beauty of this iconic church captures the observer’s eye, but so should its impressive history. The declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those enslaved in the Confederacy, was made by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, and declared to go into effect on January 1, 1863. However, it would not be read this far south in Texas until 1865, when it was read in Galveston on June 19, known today as ‘Juneteenth’. Once the enslaved citizens of Houston were freed, a select few began this first African American church in Houston. It was originally located at 313 Robin Street as part of the Fourth Ward, also known as Freedmen’s Town, a community of freed men created after the close of the Civil War. Today, its modern address is 500 Clay Street and it is still used for worship in the city of Houston today.
Prior to the emancipation of slaves, only two churches in Houston were known to have allowed enslaved men and women to attend their services: the Methodist church and the Baptist church. Once freed, two white missionaries, Reverend W. C. Crane and Reverend J. B. Link, from the local First Baptist Church and German Baptist Church would assist a handful of men and women to form their own church, in the back pews.
The use and attendance of these two churches would only last approximately seven months as renovations of the host churches, First Baptist Church and German Baptist Church, would cause complications for the recently freed black attendees to continue at the back. This would cause seven African American members to initiate the beginnings of what would later be called Antioch Baptist Church. They gathered under a self-assembled “Brush Arbor” at the modern-day location of Rusk and Bagby Street on the edge of the Buffalo Bayou, which is about six blocks north of the modern-day location of the church. Within a years’ time, this makeshift church would build a simple one-story rectangular building to hold their worship in, known as “Baptist Hill”. The church would move to its current location in 1873.
Itinerant preacher and black missionary, Reverend I. S. Campbell of the Northern Baptist Missionary Association, was dispatched to these newly freed congregants in 1867 to provide spiritual guidance and training. Along the way he encountered John Henry (Jack) Yates, a former African American slave who was capable in reading the Bible, leading prayer and hymns. After being ordained by Campbell and Elder J. J. Ryanhart, this godsend would become the first pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Attendance would dramatically increase under Yates’ leadership, causing the need for a new, larger location for the congregants to meet. He would oversee the construction of the current church, but would leave in 1891 over a dispute on borrowing money to complete the remodeling and enlargement of the church.
While the status of being the first African American Church in the Houston area is monumental enough, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church has also been significant in assisting in the success of its community members of Freedmen’s Town. It not only aided in the spiritual needs of its community, but also in the economic, educational, and social needs. Antioch was active in the promotion of newly freed slaves’ education. In 1885, together with Northern Baptist missionaries Miss Peck and Miss Dysart, Antioch began the first private school for freedmen. Known as the Houston Baptist Academy, and later as the Houston College for Negros, these would be the predecessors to the current Texas Southern University in Houston today. At the academy students would learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. They would also have the opportunity to learn specific trades. This allowed the students to start their own businesses within the community. It would continue to support the education of African Americans in the Houston community throughout the 1920s. Pastor Yates ensured that through the church, recently freed slaves could also learn how to buy homes, pay taxes, vote, and raise gardens.
In 1882, along with Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, members of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church purchased Emancipation Park, Houston’s first black park. It was utilized as a place for blacks to voice their civic concerns and host social gatherings, as well as a park for their children to play safely. The church began the annual Juneteenth celebration in this park, which is still held to this day. This park is still located in Houston’s Third Ward.
As time progressed, the Antioch building was expanded and renovations were made. New programs were created, such as youth outreach programs and Vacation Bible Schools. While the historical significance of the church continued to grow, its true desire to reach souls for Jesus was never lost. In 1931, under Reverend Thomas J. Goodall, Jr. many modern updates were made and the land adjacent to the church was purchased. Known today as Antioch Park, the iconic sign “Jesus Saves” was placed and still exists today.
As the city of Houston grew to the metropolis it is today, all of Freedmen’s Town, north of interstate 45 slowly gave way to newer and bigger structures. Antioch Missionary Baptist Church now stands as the only building representative of the Fourth Ward north of the interstate, as of 2012. Its iconic Gothic features and “Jesus Saves” sign stands as a testament to the achievements of the formerly enslaved men and women who began a church, not just to service the spiritual needs of blacks in Houston, but also their social, economic, and educational growth. In 1976 the church became the tenth structure to be part of the National Register of Historic Places in Houston. In 1991, the church received international notice as an ethnic icon when Queen Elizabeth II of England visited. Then in 2019, the cultural agency UNESCO of the United Nations listed Antioch Baptist Church as part of their Slave Route Project in the South. Also included in this list, was Emancipation Park.