John Saunders Chase Jr., the first black licensed architect to build the first black owned bank in Texas

Stephen Nartey February 24, 2023
John Saunders Chase Jr. /Photo credit: Humanities Texas

John Saunders Chase Jr. holds a legacy as a historical icon in the African American architectural space. But, before the first black licensed architect attained his accomplishments, there were many shoulders of African American designers he walked on. The restrictive systems of their time made it daunting for these black draftsmen to sit for the exam that certifies them as licensed architects. Despite their pioneering iconic buildings, they were not recognized by the state of Texas.

For example, Richard Allen, a former slave, was behind the construction of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, Houston’s Fourth Ward, in 1879. Other distinguished architects like Bastrop-born, Louis Edwin Fry, and William Sidney Pittman embarked on landmark projects which are still in existence but were not licensed. Even after the passage of the architectural registration law of 1937, African American architects were still discriminated against.

A window of hope however opened for John to pursue his dream of training as an architect at the University of Texas in the mid-1900s. The university was the best when it comes to the training of architects, but, was heavily segregated. It took the intervention of the Supreme Court to adjudicate on a case filed by civil rights activists to make John’s dream a reality, according to the university’s website.

Since childhood, he had a strong affinity for drawings and good designs, but the racial climate he grew up in delayed this dream. Born on January 23, 1925, in Annapolis, he had the opportunity to access quality education because his father was a school principal and his mother was a teacher, according to Austin American Statesman.

John had to put his dream on hold when World War II began. He enlisted in the army from 1944 to 1946, was stationed in the Philippines, and distinguished himself for his meritorious service.  With the war out of the way, he attended Hampton University in Virginia to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in architecture in 1948. Two years later, he gained admission into the University of Texas School of Architecture and graduated in 1952 as its first black student.

Despite excelling with good grades, John was told not to take the exams for the state license because no white architectural firm will accept his application as an intern. His unwavering resilience pushed him to reject that proposal and petition the state board on his desire to take the exams despite the visible racial barriers in 1952, while a member of the Texas Southern University faculty. Instead of applying to the white architectural firms in Texas after he passed the exams in 1954, he rather went ahead to establish his own design firm in Houston. He prioritized the building of homes, schools, churches, and public buildings.

Some of the masterpiece design structures John built included the first black-owned banking institution in Texas, Riverside National Bank, the Embassy in Tunisia, the Phillips House residence in East Austin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. School of Humanities at Texas Southern University.

Another memorable structure that is mentioned when John’s works are celebrated is the brick-clad house he built for his family in 1959 in the Oakmere neighborhood above Houston’s Brays Bayou.

Having attained the status of a colossus in the architecture space, John co-established the National Organisation of Minority Architects in 1971 to give visibility to the designs and architectural works of African Americans.

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