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An Architect’s Advocacy: John Chase

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John-Chase

The verbal portrait painted by Amy Maverick Crossette introduces this particular story best: [1]

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 as he boldly enraptured his name in the books of history.

The road to the aforementioned moment began at an early age for Chase. 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.[2]”

After high school, Chase followed in his sister’s footsteps enrolling at Hampton University. “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…I had three offers, and one of the offers was from Texas. It was Deep South. I said ‘Oh, no. No way in the world, I can’t go down to Texas.’ So I ended up taking a job working for an architect in Philadelphia. I stayed there for a little over a year.” Despites his initial apprehension, Chase longed for more experience and when he was offered a job in Austin, Texas with the Lott Lumber Company he made his way to the trenches of the South in the spring of 1949. A welcomed introduction to the world of architecture, the Lott Company specialized in building houses and was owned by an African American family[3].

Chase quickly realized that in order to pursue his passion and interests in architecture, he needed to advance his studies in the field. The best school for such a degree was at The University of Texas at Austin, only a few miles away from his home. While widely known for its academic reputation, it was equally known for its segregation. “But there wasn’t any other college or university that you could go to in Austin that had architecture,” Chase recalled, “so I decided to go and talk to the dean, Hugh McMath and said, ‘Look, I’m from the East, but I do understand the laws here, and they in essence say that you don’t accept African Americans. I understand that, but I thought maybe it would be possible that I could somehow work a correspondence course.’”[4] McMath responded with a conviction that foreshadowed major change on the horizon, “are you familiar with the case that’s in front of the Supreme Court as we speak?” McMath was speaking to the impending case of Sweatt v. Painter. Chase had been made aware of the case and conflict months prior, and while he too sought the opportunity to further his education, he conceded the role of pioneer to the more politically inclined. But with the encouragement of Dean McMath and with no agenda to politicize his pathway to higher education, Chase applied.

A few weeks later Chase remembers the phone ringing off the hook at his house. The first call was from an Associated Press reporter. He said, ”I guess you’re aware of the situation at the supreme Court, Sweatt v. Painter, and that you’re now eligible for registration and admission to UT[5].” The reporter continued, “I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that the next chance to do that will be,” and he named a date, which was for the summer session. Chase recalls being emphatic in his response that he planned to be there come registration day[6].

On June 7, 1950, Chase stood in line in Gregory Gym at The University of Texas at Austin. 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 blacks to enroll in the School of Law at The University of Texas. 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 black students.

Chase’s enrollment at the university was in practice a political act, social defiance and a brave action, but in reality it merely reflected a man’s thirst for education and knowledge and professional aspiration. “I think I was just too young to be afraid. I was concerned, but that’s about all, I guess. But, we got tons of nasty letters. They were from various people around the state and around the country who’d say, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, to go somewhere that you’re not wanted. I didn’t give a darn one way or another, but I did want some more architecture. I really did. As for the other students—some welcomed me and some didn’t[7].”And, on that sweltering summer day in June he and Horace Lincoln Heath became two of the first African Americans to enroll at The University of Texas at Austin.

Making it in the front door, however, did not promise a typical parlay into higher education or the social experience often associated with it. African Americans were not allowed to live on campus; they were not permitted to partake in college athletics and were restricted in their socializing. The stadium was segregated, as were the shops and restaurants along Guadalupe Street. The 40 acres in some ways functioned like an incubator, massaging ideals of equality and change, protected in some ways and yet, susceptible to tainted perceptions of race, social capital and fairness. In agreement with the NAACP’s assessment of racial attitudes in Texas, a student survey revealed that most white students were not offended by the presence of an African American student inside the classroom. And while Chase did not intend to carry the banner for racial equality in enrolling at UT, he was keenly aware and conscious of his color and the impact his presence had on the campus and beyond.

“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.”[8] From the moment I set foot on the university campus, I was shadowed by federal marshals,” said Chase. His completion of his degree was a transcendent moment for the institution and surely for those who might follow in his footsteps, but what often got lost in the narrative was the personal triumph it represented. “I waded through some waters up there that I had never been in before. I had no complaints other than the little sour things that every once in a while would pop up. In general, I think things went well. But Austin had a lot of problems,” problems that were often defined by racial assumptions and manifested in policy and inadequate resources. “Some put things in those letters, like ‘you are less than a dog to force your way into someplace that you’re not wanted’ Chase reflected. You know that type of thing, stuff that people were not comfortable coming up to you and telling you face to face. They put it in a letter and sometimes signed it and sometimes not.”

Chase did succeed, and in doing so, became the first African American to graduate from the university’s School of Architecture, a journey he credits to a few caring professors. “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.” 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.

Yet the perils of a society were soon exposed in urban Houston. In interview after interview at architectural firms, Chase was denied employment. When he showed up to apply for a job, he was told there were no available openings. 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.”[9] Having set a precedent for bypassing the social restrictions of his time, in 1952 Chase passed the state examination and founded his own architectural firm.

Faced with inexperience and naivety in running a business, Chase drew on the education foundation he had developed at UT and his daily cultural and racial interactions in the surrounding college town. The subject of his master’s thesis was progressive architecture for churches. “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.”[10] Chase managed to reinterpret the effects of the oppressive Texas social conditions to inform a distinct business strategy and life model. Having helped open the door to the ivory tower of the South at The University of Texas for African Americans years prior he continued his work, solidifying his legacy as an rule changer and social advocate, hiring African American engineers, architects and draftsmen in a field often unwelcoming to their skill-set, insight and experience.

 

[1] Crossette, Amy, Building a Legacy, 2008

[2]Oral History, Briscoe Center, 2006

[3] Crossette, Amy, Building a Legacy, 2008

[4] Crossette, Amy, Building a Legacy, 2008

[5] Lavergne, Gary, Before Brown, 2010

[6] Lavergne, Gary, Before Brown, 2010

[7] Oral history, Briscoe Center, 2006

[8] Oral history, Briscoe Center,2006

[9] Crossette, Amy, Building a Legacy, 2008

[10] Lavergne, Gary, Before Brown, 2010

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