John Henry (Jack) Yates, slave and minister, son of slaves Robert and Rachel Yates, was born in Gloucester County, Virginia, on July 11, 1828. When Rachel's mistress, Mrs. Fields, died, Rachel was given the task of caring for the Fields child, who eventually taught Jack how to read, although to do so was illegal. Jack took his reader, Bible, and songbook to the field with him and would steal out at night and read by the light of a pine knot. He made small amounts of money from fishing. When he was a young man he attended the slaves' religious gatherings and was converted. He married Harriet Willis, of a neighboring farm; they had eleven children. When Harriet's master moved to Matagorda County, Texas, about 1863, Yates, unable to bear the thought of being separated from his wife and children, begged to go along. Upon emancipation in June 1865, the Yates family went to Houston to look for work. Jack became a drayman by day and a Baptist preacher at night and on Sundays. The Home Missionary Society had sent a Black man, Isaac Sydney Campbell, to do mission work among the African Americans in Texas, and Campbell, needing help, began to send Yates to hold meetings in Houston and elsewhere. This led to Yates's ordination as a Baptist preacher by Campbell and Elder J. J. Ryanhart. When Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, the first Black Baptist church in Houston, was organized in 1866 by Reverend Crane, a white preacher, Yates was called as the first pastor. He and others moved the congregation to a more desirable location. Martha, Yates's oldest child, cooked for the bricklayers, carpenters, and laborers as they constructed the building. Under his leadership, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church and Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church purchased Emancipation Park on Dowling Street for the Black people of Houston in 1872. A dispute about a pay-as-you-go remodeling plan caused Yates to leave Antioch and organize Bethel Baptist Church in 1891. The queen of England visited Antioch Church on May 22, 1991.
In 1869 Yates bought several lots on what is now Andrews Street, where his house still stands; he thus became a homeowner less than five years after his emancipation. He was instrumental in organizing the first Baptist association for Blacks in Houston, the Old Land Mark Association, which exists today. Under the direction of two white missionaries, Jennie L. Peck and Florence Dysart, Yates organized Houston Academy, a school for Black children, in 1885. He tried unsuccessfully to have Bishop College located in Houston, and then assisted in placing it in Marshall. After Harriet Yates died, Yates married Annie Freeman, on October 13, 1888; they had one child. Yates died on December 22, 1897. Jack Yates High School in Houston was named in his honor in 1926.
Yates's son Willis bought farmland and may have been the only Black man in Harris County during the latter part of the 1880s to buy, own, and operate a steam cotton gin. He also operated a small store. Rutherford, another son, was raised by white missionaries and received his A.B. degree from Bishop College. He was a teacher and founder of Yates Printing Company of Houston, now in Austin. He was coauthor of The Life and Efforts of Jack Yates, published by Texas Southern University Press in 1985. His brother and coauthor Paul graduated from Prairie View A&M and taught at Houston Academy. Yates's daughter Maria did mission work around the country. Five of Yates's other children taught school. In 1994 John Henry Yates's home was moved from Andrews Street to Sam Houston Park in Houston and restored to its original 1870s configuration. The home was donated by his granddaughter, Mrs. Whiting, and is available for tours through the Harris County Heritage Society.