Building a Legacy : John Chase

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.

It was June 7, 1950. Chase, an African American, was smartly dressed in a double-breasted coat and tie, as he stood in line in Gregory Gym at The University of Texas at Austin. Only vaguely aware of the name Heman Marion Sweatt, Chase wasn’t standing in line with the intention of making history. Nor was he purposefully making a statement about social injustice. He, like the thousands of other students in the gym, waited in line for a basic rite of passage on a university campus. He was waiting to enroll.

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 African Americans to enroll in the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin. 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 African Americans.

Chase, born in Annapolis, Md., was 25 years old at the time. Although nervous, he recalls being befuddled at the fanfare that greeted his arrival.

“I remember, specifically, a photographer who talked non-stop to me about making history and getting the ‘right moment’ on film,” Chase said. “He told me that I wasn’t officially accepted into the university until it became a ‘contract’—in other words, until the university took my money. He was right there next to me at that moment to snap a photo.”


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