Antioch Missionary Baptist Church ~ Jesus Saves Signage
It is difficult to miss seeing the JESUS SAVES signage at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. It is situated at the top of a tall tower on the large beautiful brick church in downtown Houston. At night the neon JESUS SAVES sign is even more prominent against darkened skies.
The location of this historic church could not be more dramatic. What serves as a contrasting backdrop to this place of worship are towering modern steel, glass and concrete buildings.
Of course when this house of worship was first built in the years 1875 to 1879 all of those tall surrounding buildings did not yet exist. The initial church building was also not as large as it is today.
There is a Texas Historical Commission sign out in front of this place of worship. It is a Texas Historical Landmark and was recorded as such in 1994. The reasons for this go back to the days when slavery ended.
The Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln officially freed slaves. But it was over two years later that slaves in Texas learned that they were liberated. You can learn the reasons for this in the Juneteenth Meaning & Charles Criner Art Posters post that I have authored.
On the Texas Historical Landmark sign the following is inscribed…
“Antioch Missionary Baptist Church
The Emancipation of slaves was heralded by Federal officials in Galveston on June 19, 1865. Antioch became Houston’s first African American Baptist Church when organized by nine former area slaves in 1866.”
The sign goes on to say that their first church in 1868 was built nearby.
Their first official pastor was fellow church member Reverend John Henry Yates. It was due to his efforts that the church members paid money to purchase land and begin to build this church where it is situated today.
As mentioned above it took four years to complete what was originally a one story sanctuary at this location. It was designed by another fellow church member by the name of Richard Allen.
Architect Richard Allen was an impressive figure of a man!
He was a member of the Texas legislature (the 12th legislative session) and that was the first time blacks had ever served in that capacity. He was a customs collector for the Port of Houston. Mr. Allen was also a “quartermaster for the black regiment of the Texas Militia.” He would have been known back in those days as a Buffalo Soldier. There is now a Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Houston that is full of history such as what Mr. Allen would have experienced.
In reading about the construction of this church, it was truly a labor of love and devotion. All of the bricks were handmade. This was done by volunteer church members during their free time. The women would prepare and bring food to their men who were doing the labor.
“It was the first brick structure built and owned by African-Americans in Houston.”
The pews were all handmade as well and are still serving current church members today. What a terrific and lasting legacy left behind by those first hard working members of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church! This church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Reverend Yates was also hard working and dedicated to helping his people in many ways beyond just their spiritual needs.
Many former slaves did not know how to read or write. They were most often held back from learning those basics by their former owners. Once they were freed most of them wanted to learn those basic skills plus also learn how to do all types of jobs formerly forbidden to them.
Reverend Yates “led efforts to improve the education of Houston’s African Americans and helped establish the Houston Baptist Academy in 1885.”
Pastor Yates educational goals were to go far beyond merely the teaching of reading and writing. He wished for his people to be able to own and operate their own businesses someday.
Houston College evolved from what once was the Houston Baptist Academy. Houston College later morphed into Texas Southern University which still operates in Houston today educating the youths of tomorrow.
It was at Texas Southern University where our friend and artist Charles Criner received his education. “Trying to Catch Freedom” is one of his lithography prints. The evolution of that particular print concerns itself with the struggles of slaves trying to become emancipated. It includes some history of the Underground Railroad. Please click on the highlighted links if you wish to see his artwork and learn more about him as a person.
The Texas Historical Commission sign goes on to say…
“It was enlarged in the 1890s and underwent major alterations in the 1930s. The nationally recognized Gothic revival masonry building features stained glass windows containing portraits of prominent church figures, steep cross gables, pointed arch windows and doors, and a distinctive neon “Jesus Saves” sign.”
Fourth Ward of Houston and Freedmen’s Town
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church is situated in an area called the Fourth Ward. It is where freed slaves began to congregate along the banks of Buffalo Bayou near what is now downtown Houston. It became labeled Freedmen’s Town for obvious reasons.
The former slaves worked together to create bricks to pave the streets and build their shotgun houses. By the late 19th century Freedmen’s Town became the heart of the African-American community.
Over the years because of the proximity to downtown and rising land costs, much of the old historic neighborhood has been lost and transformed into a multi-ethnicity and more upscale residential as well as business area. A few historic buildings remain along with some of those handmade brick streets. Sadly even those are under assault in the name of progress.
The last part of the Texas Historical Commission sign has this posted:
“Once the center of a cohesive African American community, Antioch served as the mother church for many African American Baptist congregations. The church continues to provide leadership in religious, civic, and educational activities as Houston’s oldest and preeminent African American Baptist congregation.”
Just east of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church is a 1.8-acre green space and public park called Antioch Park. People working in the Allen Center buildings look down upon it. Majestic old oak trees provide shade and an elevated lawn area with concrete walls serving as seating areas provide respite for busy office workers or other passersby.
There are more Baptist churches in Houston than any other denomination. This particular one is certainly beautiful as well as historic.
Location of this historic place of worship: 500 Clay Street, Houston, Texas 77002.