By Jeffrey L. Boney, Special to The Seattle Medium from The Houston Forward Times
When African American slaves heard the unexpected news that they had legally been set free, coming from the lips of General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865 – or as we now refer to it as Juneteenth – their reactions ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation.
Many of the “newly-freed” and former African American slaves began to wonder what the relationship between them and their former slave masters would now look like.
One of those freedmen, John Henry “Jack” Yates, who was born a slave, moved his family to Houston. Not only had Yates learned how to read, write and acquire the skills of carpentry, he also ended up leading a major effort to raise money towards the purchase of a piece of land where African Americans could celebrate their newfound freedom from slavery for years to come.
In 1872, Yates and other Freedman’s town residents – Elias Dibble, Richard Allen and Richard Brock – purchased the 10 acres of land at the corner of Dowling Avenue (now Emancipation Avenue) and Elgin, and named it Emancipation Park, in honor of their newly received freedom, and as a place to organize and celebrate Juneteenth with their families for generations to come.
Fast forward 146 years later, and Emancipation Park is recognized as the oldest park site in the City of Houston. The land that Yates and these other former slaves purchased still remains, and while the land has been cultivated and a new facility has been erected, the spirit of those individuals who originally purchased that 10- acre parcel of land in 1872 for only $800 continues to host the celebration of Juneteenth on those hallowed grounds. Emancipation Park is now an 11.7 acre recently renovated “jewel” located in Third Ward – between Houston’s thriving central business district and the world-renowned Texas Medical Center.
Yates, who later went on to become a successful minister, businessman, community leader and educator, became the founding pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church – the first Black Baptist church in Houston in January 1866.
By 1875, Yates had led his Antioch congregation – almost all of whom were former slaves, to erect a brick church building and to become extremely influential in the political, social and cultural life of Black Houston. Yates also became the dynamic leader of early Freedmen’s Town, where he built churches, businesses and a school. Along with his work as a minister, Yates was also a pioneer in education. When the federal government set up the Freedmen’s Bureau schools in churches in Houston, Yates volunteered his church, Antioch, as one of the school sites. Yates also helped to bring the first Baptist college to Texas, Bishop Academy, which was an institution that prepared students for employment in trades, business and ministry.
Yates died in 1897 and is buried in College Park Cemetery in Houston. A high school in Houston’s Third Ward – Jack Yates Senior High School – is named in his honor.