Wheatley High School and Yates High School are two of the most famous predominantly black schools in Texas. Graduates of Wheatley include Sid Williams, Barbara Jordan, and Mickey Leland. Graduates of Yates include Debbie Allen, Rickie Winslow, and George Floyd. While these schools have been around since the 1920’s, few people know the history behind the names of these two schools.
Wheatley is named in remembrance of the poet and former slave, Phillis Wheatley. While that is the name we know her for today, she was renamed Phillis because The Phillis was the name of the slave ship which transported her to America. She was stripped of her old name, heritage, and history. She was given the name Wheatley because it was the surname of the slave owners who purchased her.
In 1773, Phillis Wheatley accomplished something that had never been done before: she became the first African slave, the first person of African descent, and the third ever colonial American woman to have her work published. Her first book published was her book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects. She was one of the best-known poets in pre-19th century America.
Wheatley was born in West Africa in 1753 and died in 1784. During the peak of her writing career, she wrote a well-received poem praising the appointment of George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army. However, she believed that slavery was the issue that inhibited the colonists from being real heroes.
Wheatley would use theological description to move church members to decisive action. For example, these powerful lines in her poetic eulogy to General David Wooster rebuke patriots who confess Christianity yet oppress her people:
But how presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with the Almighty mind
While yet o deed ungenerous they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric: blameless race
Let virtue reign and then accord our prayers
Be victory ours and generous freedom theirs.
And in a letter “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” she writes about the utmost importance of freedom:
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
There is reason the word “freedom” is capitalized. In this poem she also explores the immense pain she was forced to deal with when being taken from her family. She does all she can with her words to get the reader to try and see her world. She is a poet who is seldom remembered, and now may be a time as good as ever to revisit these forgotten artists.
Yates High School is named after a man named John Henry “Jack” Yates. Reverend Jack Yates was also given the surname of his slave owners. Yates was an emancipated slave, who was allowed to come to Texas in the 1860’s with his wife, who was enslaved on a nearby plantation.
Once freed, Yates moved to Houston where he worked as a wagon driver. While enslaved, he still managed to learn to read and write, and soon after moving to Houston, he was ordained and became the first regular pastor of Antioch Baptist Church. The first services took place in a makeshift shelter off of Buffalo Bayou before they were able to purchase a more traditional church building.
Yates was a legendary community leader who helped establish Emancipation Park in the third ward. He also established the Houston Academy for Negroes in the 1880’s so that more black people in Houston could receive an education. Years after his death, his Houston family home has been restored and moved to Sam Houston park where it stands today.
From 2013-2017 I attended St. John’s High School in Houston, and it wasn’t until my friend and former classmate Julian Peavy told me about these two Houston schools last week that I had any idea of their existence. People often complain about the decisiveness in our country, but it is built into the way we grow up. I lived in the same house in Houston, Texas for the first 18 years of my life, and not once had I met a single person from these two prestigious high schools.
We are raised in a bubble, and for most of us, we never leave that bubble for our entire lives. And traveling or moving across states does not mean you leave the bubble. When I moved to New York, I attended a private university that although may be more diverse than my private school in Houston, it is still easy to find myself running around in groups of like-minded people from similar backgrounds. It’s unlikely to find a NYU student from Houston’s third ward.
I also want to point out that there is not much information readily available on these two important schools (Wheatley and Yates), which further shows that we do not pay much attention to important members of history who are not white.
So as the headlines of recent news may wake people up to be more aware of understanding what inclusivity and equality actually means, I believe that it is important to do more than just educate ourselves. And no, that does not mean go to predominantly black neighborhoods near you and pat yourself on the back if you shake a black man’s hand. But I do think it means listening to those who have had their voice squandered, and helping them take action that the world needs. Opening people’s eyes to the flaws ingrained in society as well as making efforts to change them. There’s much more we can all do than merely listening, talking, and writing (writing this alone probably isn't doing much at all). But it’s a start. Since it’s only a start, let’s not look for the end. Let’s look for progress.
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©2023 Jake Schick