They wanted a place that they could call their own and go to, other than church, in order to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation.
JACQUELINE WHITING BOSTIC
In 2021, the Juneteenth holiday became federally recognized. The declaration of the newest federal holiday since 1983 — when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established — was the culmination of decades-long efforts to promote a nationwide celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.
John “Jack” Henry Yates (1828-1897) was a key leader in the effort to promote the concept of the holiday in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation. Yates created the first public park in Houston for Black communities to gather and mark “the jubilation of the end of slavery in the Confederacy.” Established in 1872, it was called Emancipation Park.
THE ORIGINS OF A NATIONAL HOLIDAY
On June 19, 1865, the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a message that took two years to arrive. On the same date in 1866, this historic moment was commemorated — originally named Freedom Day and later, Juneteenth — as an annual holiday celebrating Black culture.
In an interview with Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, Jacqueline Whiting Bostic reflects on the impact and legacy of her great-grandfather — Yates — and his personal connection to Juneteenth and founding Emancipation Park. He believed the Black community needed their own institutions to be “self-supported.” Born an enslaved person in Virginia, Yates — later in his life as a freed man — would go on to develop community and educational structures that supported the growth of the Black community in Houston, across Texas, and throughout the western U.S.
A major commemoration of Juneteenth takes place at Houston’s Emancipation Park — a year-round gathering place founded by Yates for uplifting Black collectivity and joy. The Park embraces the holiday of Juneteenth with a lively, annual celebration that explores the experiences and perseverance of Black communities.
YATES: TWICE-ENSLAVED, TWICE-FREED
In 1828, Yates was born into enslavement at a household in Gloucester County, Va. Yates was one of more than 2 million enslaved people living in the U.S. by the 1830s.
Around the time Yates was born, the slave owner’s wife had a child and died soon afterward. The slave owner brought Yates and his mother into the house to care for his child. “The two boys grew up together,” Bostic recounts, with Yates’ mother raising both children. Although enslaved children were prohibited from attending school, the boy would teach Yates what he had learned at school in the evenings. No one knew about their close friendship, nor the secret tutoring sessions the two boys shared together, which taught Yates how to read and write.
When the Emancipation Proclamation came about, 3.1 million of the 4 million enslaved people at that time were freed. These 3.1 million individuals were living in the Confederate states — which included Yates and his family in Virginia.
But all enslaved people were not immediately free. Yates was freed, but his wife and children, who were living on a different Virginia plantation, were not. “That slave owner was determined not to stop having slaves,” Bostic describes. She added, “Texas was a place that was continuing to have slaves, even after slavery ended,” so Yates’ wife and children were brought to Texas as enslaved people.
Yates also went to Texas to be with his family — which required him to re-enter enslavement. Bostic reflects, “He wanted to continue taking care of his family and be with his family, so in order to do that, he had to come back, go back into slavery to come with the family.”
After June 19, 1865 — when the enslaved people in Galveston found out they were legally freed — Bostic describes, “In many instances, the slave owners said, you can stay here, but you’re going to have to work, and you’re not going to get paid.”
When Yates and his family received the news, it was the second time Yates learned that he had been freed. He, his wife, and children moved to Houston, settling in the Fourth Ward, where Bostic notes that “they began living as a family.”
MAKING HOUSTON HOME
The years following the Emancipation Proclamation ushered in a period of uncertainty for Black citizens. There were Black Codes governing the South, starting in Mississippi, and limitations placed on the rights of newly freed people. Freedom Day became a way to celebrate and honor ancestors who would not enjoy the freedoms the generation of newly freed Black citizens were granted. As the holiday evolved to become known as Juneteenth, it became a day where the Black community could celebrate themselves — their lives, families, joys, journeys, and freedom.
And so, Bostic says, each year, Yates and his family celebrated Juneteenth. And they did so precisely because, as Yates believed, physical places, and major life events, distinguished and celebrated their lives as uniquely their own.
Even though slave-owning families strived to maintain the status quo in Texas, Bostic says there was joy among the Black citizens in the state, knowing their rights as freed individuals were guaranteed by law. Yates and his family left the plantation, started their lives together, and got to work to build out — and up — the Black community in Houston.
A ‘VISIONARY LEADER’
Bostic calls her great-grandfather a “visionary leader” — and businessman — as she talks about his devotion to Black liberty and advancement. He understood the importance of Black citizens owning land. Together with formerly enslaved people, he bought 10 acres in Houston, which would turn into Emancipation Park, and helped Black families buy land, as well, encouraging educational projects together “as a people — and it was theirs.”
Several years before he helped found Emancipation Park, Yates became Pastor of the city’s first Black Baptist Church, Antioch Missionary. He helped people build their own homes and businesses and supported the development of churches and schools in Houston and throughout Texas and the western U.S. Yates’ efforts to support the success of Black Americans in Houston and beyond continued until the end of his life.
Bostic notes the significance of Yates’ actions: “For someone that had been enslaved, coming out of slavery, being able to build their own institutions” was critical. Yates was passionate about education. Among the schools he founded included the Houston Baptist Academy, which taught formerly enslaved people vocational trades, math, reading, and writing. The institution would eventually become Texas Southern University. He established a cemetery for Black citizens, College Park Memorial Cemetery, where he was buried in 1897.
A man who left behind a rich legacy, Yates’ contributions are more widely known today than ever with the creation of the Juneteenth national holiday. As Bostic notes, more than 150 years ago, Emancipation Park provided a structure for the Black community — as did the other education and community spaces Yates established — to ensure they would have the institutional tools they needed to develop their lives after emancipation.
CELEBRATING FREEDOM YEAR-ROUND
In the years following the Civil War, Juneteenth gained momentum — many formerly enslaved people, and their descendants, made annual trips to Galveston. Celebrations for Juneteenth spread out from Texas and began taking place across the country.
“Celebrate Freedom” — Juneteenth Family Fun Day, Juneteenth Freedom Run/Walk, and Juneteenth Music Festival — are all part of Juneteenth’s celebration roster
at Emancipation Park. The Emancipation Park Conservancy — the organization supporting the legacy and continuance of the park into its programming today — calls the park “a safe space to celebrate freedom … [providing] an unmatched experience that amplifies its founders’ vision.”
Article hero image: A decorated utility box in Emancipation Park, June 2021. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)
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