John Henry “Jack” Yates was born as a slave in Gloucester County, Virginia, on July 11, 1828. Unlike most slaves, Yates was tough how to read by the son of his mistress. He had to read books in secret because he would have faced severe punishment if he was discovered reading. The laws of time prohibited blacks from learning how to read. One of the books that Yates read and practiced his reading with was the bible. He also attended religious services, which helped him on his journey to self-education. The services also gave Yates time to network with other slaves and educate them on the knowledge that he had acquired. It was through these meetings that he met Harriet Willis. Yates and Willis began a relationship; however, they were not allowed to marry. Slaves were not allowed to marry. Yates and Willis's relationship produced eleven children, despite living on two separate plantations. In 1863 Willis’s owner decided that he wanted to relocate his family and his slaves, including Harriet and her children, with Jack Yates to Matagorda County, Texas (The Texas Sugar Bowl). Yates approached his owner about being sold to Harriet’s owner. Yates successfully persuaded his owner into selling him to Harriet's owner, and the enslaved family forcibly moved to Texas.
Upon emancipation on June 19, 1865, Yates decided to leave the Sugar Bowl's countryside and settle in the predominantly black community near downtown Houston called Fourth Ward or more commonly known today as Freedman Town. Coinciding with Yates migration, a group of freedmen with the First Baptist Church's aid organized The First African American Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. However, for the church's early years, the church had no permeant location. While the outlines for a permanent church were being laid, the black parishioners wandered from one location to the next. Besides, this early church had not permanent pastors presiding over it. Instead, the congregation would host traveling pastors.
In 1868 Yates was ordained as a Baptist minister at the first association meeting for the African American Baptist Churches. The meeting laid the foundations for the National Baptist Conventions, in which Yates was an active participant. At this meeting, Yates was solidified as the first Pastor of The First African American Baptist Church. Under his leadership, the church's name was changed to Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Due to the church's increase in membership of four times the original size, the church began to need additional space. In 1872 the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church congregation purchased property on Clay Street, which at the time was in the heart of the Fourth Ward Community. On May 15, 1875, the first cornerstone of the church was laid. The members of the church did the church's constructional development. The church's architect was Richard Allen, a member, and representative for the 12th Texas Legislative session. The men of the congregation worked on the building’s actual construction for free. At the same time, the women provided noon-day meals for the men for free. In 1879 the church was complete. On the first Sunday, May 4, 1870, the congregation commemorated the freedman's accomplishments by marched from Old Baptist Hill down Robin Street to the new building. The church was one of the first pieces of property purchased by blacks in Houston. The church is notable for its red bricks. The church was a symbolic system for Forth Ward because it is also the first brick building constructed by Black people.
Reverend Yates was known to have been a devoutly religious man and was said to have lived his life by the letter of the bible and enjoyed spreading the gospel to the masses. He was respected for his positive approach and his ability to quote the bible from memory. Yates encouraged black entrepreneurship homeownership and property ownership. Under Yates leadership, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church became a spiritual and political center. The church hosted the biracial Harris County Republican Club. Yates supported political organizations, but he also supported blacks' right to vote, encouraging the black community to let their voices be heard. By 1885 Antioch Church provided educational services for blacks. Since blacks were not allowed to read or write during slavery, Reverend Yates established the Houston Baptist Academy. This early school taught former slaves reading, writing, mathematics, and vocational trades. Houston Baptist academy would eventually become Houston College for Negros. The Houston College for Negros would evolve into Texas Southern University.
Jack Yates was a visionary. His vision was to create an African American college. With his congregation's support, his dream of a black higher education institution came true, when in 1881, Bishop College was created. In 1872 Yates helped with the establishment of Emancipation Park, which was Houston’s first African American park. Emancipation Park would be a place for black recreation and would host events like Juneteenth. Yates also helped establish a black cemetery called College Park Memorial Cemetery, located on West Dallas Street. After twenty-four years of service, Reverend Yates reigned from his pastorship in 1891 due to disagreement about the new design of Antioch Church. Later that same year, Yates established Bethel Baptist Church.
In alinement with his belief in black homeownership, Yates purchased land during the 1870s to build a home. With the help of his family, Yates was able to manufacture an impressive two-story home. 1880 after the death of his first wife, Yates married Annie Freeman. Together Yates and Freeman would have one child. Yates died on December 22, 1897, and was buried in the cemetery he helped established. His children continue all his legacy of being public servants. In 1997 the Houston Heritage Society got permission from the Yates family to move Jack Yates home from its location on 1318 Andrews Street to Sam Houston Park. Bethel Baptist Church was abandoned in 1997, and in 2005 the church was destroyed by fire, only leaving the exterior walls. On February 17, 1926, Jack Yates High School in Third Ward Area was dedicated to the Reverend Jack Yates.