In Memoriam: John Saunders Chase

April 3, 2012

We were saddened by the passing of John Saunders Chase on March 29. Chase, age 87, was the first African American student in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin and one of the first African Americans to attend the university.

Chase was honored by The University of Texas at Austin last year with a Heman Marion Sweatt Legacy Award for his role in advancing civil rights at the university. “John Chase was one of the finest modern architects in the country. He left his mark on a number of churches, institutions and monuments around the world including the Vietnam Memorial and George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston,” said Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. “He will be missed as one of the Precursors and one of the outstanding University of Texas alumni who serve as role models for African American students today.”
Photo of John Chase

A decorated World War II hero, Chase achieved a number of impressive firsts. He was the first African American licensed to practice architecture in the state of Texas and later was the first African American admitted to the Texas Society of Architects and the Houston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). He also co-founded the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) along with 12 other black architects at the AIA convention in Detroit in 1971. When President Jimmy Carter appointed him in 1980, Chase became the first African American to serve on the United States Commission on Fine Arts. His service on the commission included the creation of the Vietnam War Memorial.

Chase grew up in Maryland, reared by his mother, aunt and uncle. As he explained in an oral history, that is available from the Briscoe Center for American History, he became interested in architecture in high school and he would visit architecture offices and ask for old plans they had completed. Firms gave him old plans and talked to him about the field.

He moved to Austin after graduating from Hampton University and taught at the Crescent Institute, a school for veterans. It was near the university campus. Chase wanted to enter the School of Architecture and went to talk to the dean, Hugh McMath to see if he could somehow take correspondence courses since UT Austin did not accept African Americans. Dean McMath told him about the Sweatt v. Painter case before the Supreme Court and said he should apply to the university, which Chase did. As soon as the decision was made in Sweatt v. Painter, Chase was bombarded with phone calls. An Associated Press reporter, he said, was more excited than he was and offered advice on how to register.

After enrolling, two officers were assigned to follow Chase for protection. “I think I was just too young to be afraid,” said Chase. “I was concerned but that’s about all, I guess. But, we got tons of nasty letters. . . from around the state and country.” Chase said other than the letters, he doesn’t remember anything bad about his time at the university, even though Austin had many racial problems at the time.

“I just never saw the advantage of really getting mad,” said Chase.  “I think you weaken your ability to operate, to work, to do whatever you’re doing when you let anger get into it.”

Read more about John Chase.

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