Growing up, John Chase dreamed of creating homes and buildings in which people could live, work and enjoy for generations. He not only became a trailblazing architect but along the way also helped desegregate higher education.
When he died in late March at age 87, Chase had achieved an admirable list of “firsts” among African-Americans. Easily the most significant, observers say, was him being the first to enroll as a graduate student in 1950 at the University of Texas at Austin in the wake of a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling that essentially ordered public colleges to admit African-Americans to its graduate-level and professional programs.
“He was a true pioneer and a giant,” says Leslie Cedar, chief executive officer and executive director of Texas Exes, the UT alumni association. She described Chase, who was chosen in 1998 as Texas Exes president, as “graceful and humble.”
Current Texas Exes president and 1991 law graduate Machree Gibson also became acquainted with Chase because they shared mutual relatives. “He was definitely someone to look up to and a very fine role model,” Gibson recalls.
A Maryland native, Chase earned a bachelor’s in architecture from Hampton University and took a drafting job in Philadelphia. Another job led to the move to Austin, where he realized he needed a graduate degree to improve his chances of actually becoming an architect. Meanwhile, the Sweatt v. Painter case was pending, in which Heman Sweatt sued UT after being automatically denied admission to its law school because he was Black.
Chase contacted the head of UT’s architecture program anyway, and the latter advised him to apply for admission and await the outcome of the Sweatt case. Once the High Court handed down its ruling, UT complied, although the undergraduate level did not desegregate until after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954.
In a 2006 interview for the UT-based Shirley Bird Perry Oral History Project, Chase described how news reporters in 1950 were “more excited than I was” by his history-making registration as a graduate student. Two days after the Sweatt decision, Chase was joined at registration on campus by Horace Lincoln Heath, an African-American who was pursuing graduate studies in another discipline. While they stood in line among White peers, one of the journalists on hand suggested Chase pay his tuition, then “turn around and smile” for a news photo.
“That picture,” he recounted, “ended up in all of the papers.”
His experience was typical of African-Americans at that time. Some students and faculty supported desegregation, but others did not. Escorted to campus by federal marshals, Chase had to endure hate mail and racial slurs.
After earning his master’s degree in architecture and moving to Houston, Chase was refused employment at White-owned architecture firms, so he started his own. He and his wife introduced themselves to local African-Americans, especially among church congregations. Chase’s business took root, and he hired Black engineers and draftsmen. When he launched his firm in the 1950s, he was believed to be the first, licensed African-American architect in Texas.
Among his hundreds of projects were designs for Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, student life center and other academic buildings.
Dr. John Rudley, Texas Southern University (TSU) president, said Chase’s “intellect, creativity and business acumen will be forever present on campus. The world is a better place because (he) was in it.” Rudley also praised him as a mentor to many TSU students.
Chase designed a track and soccer stadium for UT as well as, on another part of campus, a $7 million, 750-car parking garage that opened in 1994. His diverse, prolific portfolio included designing the U.S. embassy in Tunisia and helping to design Houston’s convention center. An appointee of President Jimmy Carter, he became the first African-American on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which advises the federal government on the aesthetics of parks and monuments in Washington, D.C. Chase’s tenure included the selection of Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Chase served on the boards of trustees for Hampton and Huston-Tillotson University and was a founding member of the University of Houston System Development Board. In 1971, he and a handful of other African-American architects from around the country formed the National Organization of Minority Architects. Active on the boards of hospital, civic and business organizations in Houston and elsewhere, Chase became influential in political circles, too.
He again made history when he became the first African-American president of Texas Exes. Gibson, in turn, is the association’s first female African-American president.
“I am so proud that it is his signature on my Texas Exes Life Membership certificate,” Gibson says of Chase. “Hopefully, African-Americans are proud now that it is my signature on their Life Membership certificates.”