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The loss of a trailblazer

After his historic enrollment in 1950, architect John Chase laid a foundation of firsts. With his death last Thursday, the university loses a pioneer.

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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.”

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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.