John Saunders Chase Jr. stood in line at the Gregory Gymnasium on a sweltering Texas afternoon. He had come to register for classes, as any other student was doing that day. However, for John, his presence caused an uneasiness and agitation to some of those around him. And I’m sure John felt an uneasiness also with the national guard standing close by with dogs at the ready. However, that was not going to deter him and the handful of other African-Americans there. Just two days after the Supreme Court ruling of Sweatt V. Painter, which barred segregation in professional schools, John S. Chase would become one of the first to desegregate the University of Texas at Austin and the first African-American enrolled in the UT Graduate School of Architecture.
Relatably, John had no idea what he wanted to do growing up, but understood that he liked to build and draw. A teacher in his youth would inquire about his future and fortunately, put him on track to pursue architecture. In 1952, two years after enrollment, John S. Chase would make history by becoming one of the first Black graduates in Texas, as well as the first Black licensed architect in the South. Despite societal pushback, John would have an extraordinary career. There were a lot more ‘first’ in store for John, notably he would become the first Black President of Texas Exes, the official alumni association for the University of Texas at Austin, he became the first African-American to serve on the Commission of Fine Arts under President Jimmy Carter, and he would co-found the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).
John was able to break down barriers during his lifetime. Although he has taken tremendous strides on behalf of minority designers, there is still a long way to go. As of 2020 Black men make up less than 1.5 percent of licensed architects in the United States and Black women account for slightly more at 1.9 percent. The architectural profession, historically, has a strong footing in white supremacy and societal elitism. There is an obvious imbalance in the profession of architecture and very little action has been taken to address these inequities by educators, practitioners, and governing bodies.
As a young Black male currently pursuing an architectural degree, John Chase has been an inspiring figure in a profession that seems to exclude people of color. I look forward to addressing these matters in my life-time through my position as a student, a practitioner, and eventually, as an educator. John was able to use his influence to support minority designers, engineers, and draftsmen across the United States, opening the doors for a generation of minority professionals. I know if I live courageously as he did, I can help pave the way for those after me as well.