Exhibition honors UT Alumnus John S. Chase, UT-Austin’s first African American graduate from School of Architecture

The School of Architecture held a Breaking Barriers discussion panel on diversity and Austin’s racial history that ended with a reception near the John Saunders Chase exhibition on Friday. 

The exhibition, which highlights the work, life and legacy of alumnus John S. Chase — the first African American to attend and graduate the School of Architecture — was brought to campus after a group of students in the Community and Regional Planning Student Organization talked with Michelle Addington, dean of the School of Architecture, about diversity issues in the school.

“We hope that the greater Austin community at large will see the importance of understanding the past and its many lessons as we work towards building a more inclusive present,” said Nicholas Armstrong, a planning organization member and community and regional planning graduate student.

Donna D. Carter, President of Carter Design Associates, said recognizing Chase’s work is important to the city of Austin.

“There is joy now that we’re finding value in it, and in that we can actually look back and people want to look at his drawings, and look at how he did work and we can think of him as an architect and as an artist, not as a first,” Carter said.


In February 2018, UT purchased one of Chase’s first designs, a building that used to house the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas, which will now house the Community Engagement Center.

“I think there’s this beautiful sense of symmetry — a man that broke the barriers here at UT, built this building around the principles of education, specifically for black people and for it to be connected again to this idea of community engagement and education is really awesome,” said panelist Virginia Cumberbatch, director of community engagement at UT. 

Originally curated for the Houston Public Library by Danielle Wilson, Christina Grubitz and Anzilla Gilmore, the exhibit was 10 years in the making. 

“There had never been something like an exhibition done about him, and I felt like his work and his life were so intertwined that it was important to tell the full story,” Wilson said.

When Addington went to the exhibition in Houston, she said she was immediately interested in bringing it to UT for the School of Architecture’s open house.

“The dean insisted that the show be up for that week to give a sense of what the values of the school are, what we want the school to do and what we want the school to be,” said David Heymann, co-chair of the Lectures and Exhibitions Committee at the School of Architecture.

The exhibit at UT includes new materials not included in the original Houston show, which graduate students began working on in February. Graduate student Wei Zhou said working on the exhibition helped her appreciate Chase’s work in Austin.

“There is a church near my apartment that I used to pass by every day, and I just knew it was a good building, but had never thought about the designer,” Zhou said in an email. “When I started working on the exhibition, I just realized that the architect is Chase, and when I visited the church again, I saw a lot of details that I didn’t notice before.”

The exhibit will be open to the public until May 1, but the school is planning to keep parts of the exhibit for a permanent display.