John Henry “Jack” Yates was an early influential African-American leader in Houston, Texas. He was born a slave to Robert and Rachael Yates in Gloucester County, Virginia, on July 18, 1828. During his youth, he learned how to read and write, which was uncommon for slaves, and he later became a skilled carpenter.
Yates was allowed to marry Harriet Willis on a neighboring plantation, and together they had eleven children. When the time came for Willis to move with her master to Matagorda County, Texas, Yates pleaded and begged to go along with his family; he was granted permission. The Yates family later received their freedom on June 19, 1865, and soon relocated to Houston, Texas.
Yates became a Baptist preacher and drayman in Houston. He did missionary work among the freedmen and women who moved to Houston after the Civil War. In 1866, Yates became the founding pastor of Houston’s first black Baptist church. He took the lead and the church became influential in the political, social, and cultural lives of the local black communities.
As a preacher who was concerned about the education of black children, Yates volunteered his services to the Freedmen’s Bureau schools that were set up in churches throughout the region. He volunteered to allow his church to be one of the school sites as well. He also helped bring the first Baptist college to Texas, Bishop Academy, which was an institution that helped students with trades, ministry, and business. Yates died in 1897 in Houston.