The University of Texas at Austin
  • The loss of a trailblazer

    By Rose Cahalan, The Alcalde
    Published: April 2, 2012

    John Chase’s parents studied education in college. But when they applied to teaching jobs, they were always turned away because of their race. So Chase’s father became a postal worker, and his mother worked as a maid.

    John Saunders Chase
    John Chase in 1996.

    “They are the reason I made it through college,” Chase told The Alcalde in 1996. “Education had always been important in my family … I figured the best place to get what I needed would be The University of Texas at Austin.”

    When distinguished alumnus Chase, who received his master’s degree in architecture in 1952, died last Thursday, the university lost one of its most determined pioneers.

    In 1950, Chase became the first African American to enroll at the university, just as the landmark Sweatt v. Painter case was heading to the Supreme Court. Chase didn’t know the university was segregated until the dean of the School of Architecture, Hugh McMath, asked him, “Are you familiar with the case that’s in front of the Supreme Court right now?”

    Chase was vaguely familiar with the case — and from his parents’ experience, he was deeply familiar with how often African Americans got the doors of the ivory tower slammed in their faces. But that didn’t daunt him. With McMath’s encouragement, he submitted his application.

    Just two days after the Sweatt v. Painter ruling, Chase enrolled. Reporters and cameramen chased him on campus. Hateful letters poured in by the dozens.

    “But for every negative thing that happened, I declare there was a positive,” Chase told The Alcalde. “I had some great friends there, even during that time.”

    After earning his architecture degree, Chase applied to firms all over Texas. None would hire him, so he started his own firm — after selling his home to raise start-up funds. He became the first African American-licensed architect in Texas. For the next decade, he was the only one.

    John Chase
    Two days after the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregation of graduate and professional schools, John Chase enrolls at The University of Texas at Austin to pursue a master’s degree in architecture. Photo taken June 7, 1950.

    Photo: John Chase at UT, di_04081, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, UT Austin. Source: UT Texas Student Publications, Inc. Photographs.

    Chase helped design Houston’s landmark George R. Brown Convention Center, among hundreds of other projects. He also had a passion for working on schools and universities, including buildings at Texas Southern University, Houston’s Booker T. Washington High School, and here at the university, where he designed the Myers Track and Soccer Stadium and a $7 million West Campus parking facility. Chase even worked abroad, designing the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia.

    He was also the first black member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a post President Jimmy Carter appointed him to in 1976. Among the projects he contributed to in Washington was the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

    In 1998 he was chosen as president of the Texas Exes, where he was a founding member of the Black Alumni Advisory Committee. And he passed his devotion for education on to his three children, who are all thriving attorneys.

    In 1996, Chase told The Alcalde that he felt lucky to get paid for work that he loved. “The best part of the job,” he said, “is to conceive of something, to watch it grow and see people enjoying the building you’ve designed for them.”

    Current Texas Exes president Machree Gibson, B.A. ’82, J.D. ’91, who follows Chase as the association’s first female African American president, calls him “a very fine role model.”

    “I am so proud that it is his signature on my Texas Exes Life Membership certificate,” Gibson says. “Hopefully, African Americans are proud now that it is my signature on their Life Membership certificates.”

    Experience More

    This story originally appeared on The Alcalde website.

    Home page banner photo: John Chase at UT, di_04082, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, UT Austin. Source: UT Texas Student Publications, Inc. Photographs.

    • Quote 2
      Mike Millsap said on May 28, 2012 at 4:09 p.m.
      I had the privilege of knowing John Chase when I was at UT. He was a great man and you knew it when you were in his presence. These men and women pass through our lives and they are giants.
    • Quote 2
      JohnP said on May 1, 2012 at 3:05 p.m.
      Fantastic story. Mr. Chase is to be applauded. Just becoming an architect is difficult enough. Doing so in the face of adversity and the challenges of the period is a special accomplishment indeed. What a powerful personality.
    • Quote 2
      Lonnie Howard said on April 7, 2012 at 10:22 p.m.
      As a graduate of UT, with a PhD, I find this story very motivating. Not just because I'm Black - but because it's inspiring to read about anyone (any race/gender) who has overcome a challenge. Most people love an 'underdog.'
    • Quote 2
      Pedant said on April 6, 2012 at 6:02 p.m.
      The TSHA refers to Mr. Chase as the first licensed black architect in Texas. TSHA refers to William Sidney Pittman as the first practicing black architect. Architects were not registered (licensed) in Texas until 1937 at which time Mr. Pittman was no longer practicing architecture. Both were trailblazers.
    • Quote 2
      Linda Lewis said on April 6, 2012 at 2:02 p.m.
      John Chase is a hero for all UT Exes. He loved the University, despite his experiences of discrimination. Chase inspired many of us to claim our legacy and to work with the powers that be,while providing leadership and common sense. May his memory live longer than his creations!
    • Quote 2
      Angie Hodge said on April 5, 2012 at 5:13 p.m.
      Thank you for posting this story as I am certain he lead the way for many of us to walk the hallowed halls in other colleges. RIP Mr. Chase, job well done!
    • Quote 2
      LONGTIMELONGHORN said on April 5, 2012 at 12:32 p.m.
      Thank God for a man when doors and oppertunities were closed, he did not give up or in, but had enough confidence in his own ability to create is own oppertunity and business. A outstanding leader challenges his obstacles and still wins. BRAVO BRAVO
    • Quote 2
      Melody Simon said on April 5, 2012 at 10:20 a.m.
      Indeed, a trailblazer. I wasn't aware of Mr. Chase's accomplishments, but am now. He sounded like a treasure to those that knew him. Thank you for sharing his story.
    • Quote 2
      John Slate said on April 5, 2012 at 8:45 a.m.
      I met Mr. Chase several times, a wonderful gentleman. However, the first African American-licensed architect in Texas was not Mr Chase. It was William Sidney Pittman:
    • Quote 2
      Rodney Griffin said on April 4, 2012 at 5:55 p.m.
      John Chase, a trailblazer in the quest for social equality is an example of what perseverance can accomplish amist seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Myself a Houstonian, UT Alum and proud Precursor am proud to have had an association with John. R.I.P. John Chase, and thank you for showing many of us our possibilities.
    • Quote 2
      Edwin Dorn said on April 2, 2012 at 9:53 p.m.
      I must have been 12 or 13 when I first saw John Chase's sign outside his office in Houston's Third Ward. What, I wondered, was an architect? It was a new word; and when I figured out what it meant, that word came to represent a whole new world of possibilities. And what a pleasure it was, decades later, to get to know John and Drucie.
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