Following historic enrollment, African American architect John Saunders Chase lays foundation of firsts

Feb. 4, 2008

In a sea of white faces, John Saunders Chase waited patiently amid the stares and glares of the swarm of humanity surrounding him. Cameras flashed as reporters hurled questions at him and jotted down his responses.

It was June 7, 1950. Chase, an African American, was smartly dressed in a double-breasted coat and tie, as he stood in line in Gregory Gym at The University of Texas at Austin.

John Saunders Chase enrolls at The University of Texas at Austin, June 7, 1950
Two days after the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregation of graduate and professional schools, John Saunders 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, Center for American History, UT Austin. Source: UT Texas Student Publications, Inc. Photographs.

Only vaguely aware of the name Heman Marion Sweatt, Chase wasn’t standing in line with the intention of making history. Nor was he purposefully making a statement about social injustice. He, like the thousands of other students in the gym, waited in line for a basic rite of passage on a university campus. He was waiting to enroll.

Just two days prior, the United States Supreme Court had ruled in favor of desegregation in three separate civil rights cases. Two of the cases, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State and Henderson v. United States, focused on banning separate facilities at a university and prohibiting segregated seating arrangements on railroad cars, respectively.

The third case, Sweatt v. Painter, concerned equal education opportunities—specifically, the right of African Americans to enroll in the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin. The court voted in favor of desegregation of graduate and professional schools (the undergraduate level did not desegregate until the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954) and The University of Texas at Austin became the first major public university in the south to open its doors to African Americans.

Chase, born in Annapolis, Md., was 25 years old at the time. Although nervous, he recalls being befuddled at the fanfare that greeted his arrival.

“I remember, specifically, a photographer who talked non-stop to me about making history and getting the ‘right moment’ on film,” Chase said. “He told me that I wasn’t officially accepted into the university until it became a ‘contract’—in other words, until the university took my money. He was right there next to me at that moment to snap a photo.”

The road to “that moment” began at an early age for Chase. Growing up, he idolized his older sister and was devoted to following in her footsteps. When she enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia he was destined to do the same. And although he knew what he wanted to do in life, he was, originally, at a loss to define it.

“As a child, I loved to draw and to create things like buildings and airplanes,” said Chase. “I knew what I loved to do, but didn’t really understand the concept of architecture until one day when I knocked on the front door of an architecture firm on West Street in Annapolis and told them I wanted to learn about what they did.

“Even though the members of the firm were white, they took me in and treated me like one of their own. They sat me at drafting tables and pulled out rolls of plans to show me. And, to this day, I am good friends with members of that firm.”

I thought to myself, if no one will hire you, you're going to take that state examination, pass it and hire yourself. So that's what I did. I hired myself. Architect John Saunders ChaseChase earned a bachelor of science degree in architecture from Hampton University in 1948, and he never wavered in his determination to become an architect. Architecture was his life-long passion and he was determined to realize his dream. Only, unknown to him, his dream was colorblind and the world around him wasn’t.

“After graduating from Hampton I took a job in Philadelphia as a drafter,” said Chase. “It was at that time that I began to realize just how few black architects there were. Almost all of them were either in New York City or California.

“When I was offered a job in Austin at the Lott lumber company, which was owned by an African American family, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Chase.

“They designed and built residences right out of their lumberyard. And even though I’d never been to Texas, I knew that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to actually build houses.”

Chase had been in Austin less than a year when he learned of the pending Sweatt case. Realizing his only hope to become an architect lay in earning a graduate degree, he approached the chairman of the Department of Architecture (which had, by the time of Chase’s graduation, transformed into the School of Architecture) for guidance. The chairman, Hugh Lyon McMath, advised Chase to apply at the university and await the outcome of the case.

So that’s what Chase did.

And, on that warm summer day in June, whether he intended to or not, the determined young man from Annapolis made history. He and Horace Lincoln Heath became the first two African Americans to enroll at The University of Texas at Austin.

Making it in the front door, however, did not guarantee a typical college experience for Chase. African Americans were not allowed to live on campus. They were not allowed to participate in sports. The stadium was segregated, as were the shops and restaurants along Guadalupe Street.

Newspaper articles written during Chase’s tenure at the university queried white students about their feelings toward desegregation and what it felt like to have an African American in their classes. At the time, nobody bothered to ask Chase about his experience at the university. If they had, they would have realized that no one could have been more conscious of his color than Chase himself.

John Saunders Chase with his wife, Drucie, in front of San Antonio Garage on The University of Texas at Austin campus
John Saunders Chase and his wife, Drucie, in front of the San Antonio Garage at 25th and San Antonio streets during the dedication of the $7.4 million structure designed by Chase. Photo: Office of Public Affairs.

“Hampton was a predominantly black institution, so I had never been in a classroom with white kids before,” said Chase. “It was hard trying to focus on my studies as a graduate student while adjusting to an environment that was totally foreign to me.”

Soon after enrolling at the university, Chase made another monumental life change. He married his wife, Drucie, who was born and raised in Austin. Their life immediately following the wedding and during his two years at the university brings back memories—some fond and others painful—for both of them.

“From the moment I set foot on the university campus, I was shadowed by federal marshals,” said Chase. “I received a lot of hate mail using the ‘n’ word and a lot of passive aggressive innuendos and undercuts.

“But I also received a lot of support from white friends and faculty who wanted to see me succeed.”

Chase did succeed, and in doing so, became the first African American to graduate from the university’s School of Architecture, which was then, and is still now, one of the most highly recognized architecture programs in the country.

Upon receiving his master’s degree in architecture, Chase was offered a position as an assistant professor at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. He and his wife moved to Houston with great expectations of seeing his career as an architect blossom into a reality.

Shortly after arriving in Houston, however, Chase’s dream was, yet again, shattered by black and white realities.

In interview after interview at architectural firms, Chase was denied employment. When he showed up, resume in hand, to apply for a job, he was told there were no available openings. Every job he applied for vanished when he walked through the front door.

Scholarship winner Darinya Harra and Jim Boon talk with John Saunders Chase
During the 1998 Texas Leadership Scholarships event hosted by the Ex-Students’ Association, scholarship winner Darinya Harra and Jim Boon, current executive director and chief executive officer of the association, talk with John Saunders Chase, then president of the association.
Photo: Office of Public Affairs.

So Chase started his own business.

“I thought to myself, if no one will hire you, you’re going to take that state examination, pass it and hire yourself,” said Chase. “So that’s what I did. I hired myself.

“I passed the state examination and in 1952 founded my own architectural firm. I didn’t know anything about bookkeeping or tax laws or how to coordinate designers, draftsmen and engineers. Basically, I didn’t know a darn thing about running a business.”

However, Chase did know about churches. At least in theory, that is.

The subject of his master’s thesis was progressive architecture for churches. Problem was, he didn’t have any experience actually designing a church. For Chase, it was a minor obstacle.

“Drucie and I went all over Houston introducing ourselves to pastors and visiting their congregations,” he said. “You see, churches were also still segregated. I realized that, if I wanted business, I needed to approach the African American community. And the best way to do that was to attend church. I figured I could learn how to build churches with a little hard work and a lot of faith.”

Within months, after dozens of visits to local churches, Chase had more business than he could handle. Determined to open the door for other African Americans, he began to hire additional engineers, architects and draftsmen. As his business grew, so did his string of accomplishments.

In a matter of years, Chase achieved a number of impressive “firsts.” Chase became the first African American to practice architecture in Texas. He became the first African American to be accepted into the Texas Society of Architects. And he became the first African American to be accepted into the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

In the 1960s, Chase helped lead efforts to expand TSU. Chase designed several buildings on the TSU campus, including the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, the Education Building, several dormitories, the Martin Luther King School of Communications and the student center.

John Saunders Chase at NOMA convention
Betty Williams, wife of Harold Williams, co-founder of the National Organization for Minority Architects, and Bryan Hudson, former treasurer of NOMA and current treasurer of the Illinois chapter of the organization, visit with John Saunders Chase at the national NOMA convention held in Orlando, Fla., in October 2007. Photo: Erroll O’Neill, NOMA historian.

In 1971, at the national convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Chase and 12 other African American architects from various parts of the country decided to form an organization for African American architects. Later that year they founded the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), which has chapters in 18 states.

In 1980, an appointment by President Jimmy Carter made Chase the first African American to serve on the United States Commission of Fine Arts. The commission reviews the design of buildings, parks and monuments constructed in the District of Columbia. The Vietnam War Memorial was one of the many projects the commission oversaw during his tenure.

In 1992, Chase was honored as the first African American to receive a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the university’s Ex-Students’ Association (now referred to as the Texas Exes). Just six years later, and almost a half-century after his historical acceptance into the university, Chase made history yet again by becoming the first African American to serve as president of the association (which, at the time, had 66,000 members).

During his 50-year association with The University of Texas at Austin, Chase has, with little fanfare, created a legacy of determination and perseverance. In 1994, his lasting presence became immortalized in concrete at the ribbon cutting of the $7.4 million, 750-car garage he designed and built on the university campus, at 25th and San Antonio streets. Few faculty, staff and students realize the garage they use daily was designed by a man who, years ago, couldn’t dine in the restaurants just blocks away or live in the dormitories that dot the campus.

Chase has always been an active civic and social leader in the Houston community, serving on dozens of boards and organizations. He’s served on the board of trustees of Hampton University, Herman Hospital, Huston-Tillotson University, Antioch Baptist Church and Golden State Mutual Life Insurance. He’s a founding member of the University of Houston System Development Board and served on the board of directors of the Greater Houston Area Convention and Visitors Council and the Houston Chapter of the American Red Cross.

Over the years, Chase has earned numerous awards and honors, including Fellow of AIA (1990), the AIA Whitney M. Young Citation for Significant Contributions to Social Responsibility (1982), the Distinguished Black Alumnus Award from the UT Black Alumni Task Force (1989) and the NOMA Design Excellence Awards four years in a row (1984-87).

Since that day in 1950, it’s been a long, highly successful road for Chase. When asked about the root of his success, the 82-year-old, soft-spoken architect replies with the same, self-effacing manner he’s shown throughout a two-hour interview.

“I just do what I have to do,” he says with a smile.

By Amy Maverick Crossette

Banner photo: John Chase at UT, di_04082, Center for American History,
UT Austin. Source: UT Texas Student Publications, Inc. Photographs.