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On Juneteenth, family honors legacy of church founder, Black pioneer

A family in Houston, Texas, honors the legacy of church founder and Black pioneer Rev. Jack Yates.
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church
Posted at 5:09 PM, Jun 18, 2024

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed slaves, but it did not immediately end slavery in places such as Texas that remained under Confederate control.

About 2 1/2 years later, on June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were free.

As we celebrate Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery, Scripps News is telling family stories, like the one of a Texas preacher and freed slave who had a hand in creating the Black Texan community from reconstruction and beyond. Today, the Lone Star State has the biggest Black population of any U.S. state.

His name and likeness are emblazoned on Houston buildings — some call him a godfather of Juneteenth, but more so a godfather of Black Houston. John Henry "Jack" Yates, a slave freed from the chains of bondage, was an inspiration as well as a religious and community leader.

Over the joyous din of gospel music and the good news of the Bible, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church is inculcated with American history.

Pastor Lou McElroy delivered a sermon based on one of the Epistles of St. Paul, urging the faithful to persevere through suffering, much as Black slaves did until Emancipation.

A portrait of Rev. Jack Yates.
A portrait of Rev. Jack Yates.

"But our former enslaved ancestors had 60%, no 40% of a Bible. They cut out the story of Moses and the Exodus," Pastor McElroy explained.

The selectively edited version of the Bible helped educate the church's founder, to the point where he found the uncensored canon and took note of comparing the enslaved Israelites to his own family.

The Book of Exodus provided education, inspiration and liberation for Yates, who learned to read by the grace of his master's son.

"Jack Yates was born in 1828 ... 38 years [later] he's the pastor of this church. How did he get from Virginia to Houston in 38 years? That is American history," Pastor McElroy said.

Yate's descendants say he had been freed in Virginia, but went back into slavery to be with his wife and children who were forcibly moved to Confederate Texas. After the Union won the Civil War, the church, founded in 1866, became a home for Houston's black community.

"What they did uniquely, in this church, and had the foresight of 158 years ago to pour in, not only their biblical references of this church, but also our African legacy," said McElroy.

African motifs adorn the woodwork of the sanctuary and tabernacle.

Leading this 158-year-old church carries a historical burden, because of the sheer example of Yates, a freedman who along with other freed slaves built a new world with their bare hands.

Related story: Here's how people are celebrating Juneteenth across the country

The church in its current form took shape in the 1870s, constructed brick by brick, panel by panel by Black community members. The pulpit from which McElroy delivers the word of God dates from the 1890s, literally worn from the preaching of his predecessors.

"We can see that each man would grab hold and hold on for dear life as the Holy Spirit moved him," McElroy said, while showing where other men had worn out the sides.

The current pastor's wife is a direct descendant of the founder.

"And to think that my great grandfather and others started this church and that their legacy continues to live on. I'm just happy to be a part of it," said Jacqueline Bostic McElroy, great-great granddaughter of Yates.

Her mother, Jacqueline Whiting Bostic, spoke of how Yates' legacy continues in his family.

"He cared so much about community, about bringing people together to work together and to be able to build something out of nothing," Bostic noted.

Yates and his in-laws built the freedman community's first two-story house, which through preservation still stands in Houston's Sam Houston park.

Martha Whiting Goddard, another Yates descendant, showed Scripps News the house, restored to a condition that matched the era of her great grandfather.

"I always say God kind of gave us the story to tell because it either could have been that somebody was a griot or something like that from Africa," Goddard said.

A griot is the word for an African bard, a storyteller who keeps traditions alive. Yates educated himself but also spread his knowledge to newly freed people, helping create schools and higher educational institutions, one of which later became Texas Southern University.

Post-Reconstruction, Yates helped create the city's Emancipation Park, a recreational area safe for Blacks during an era of segregation and hatred.

"It means that if you have faith and you believe what you've read and learned, that you can turn that into reality," Goddard said, standing outside of the house she too once called home as a little girl.

Yates was a visionary whose story you may not know until now, a resilient figure who enabled his family and community to grow.

"Even though he may not be a part of many history books, I know that he was a builder. When I say builder, I mean a builder of men, a builder of communities," Jacqueline Whiting Bostic said.

Yates' descendants say he lived a life that hewed close to the words of empowerment he preached until his death in 1897.