Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia in the 1940s and 50s, James Trice grew
up with a keen interest in athletics, an interest which extended to the University
of Virginia football team Every week he would read the Richmond Times-Dispatch
and the Richmond News Leader, following carefully the career and the feats
of the UVA Football team. He never thought much about the University, except
to know it was white and he couldn’t go there. “I probably said
to myself oh that is the white school so I can’t go there,”recalled
Trice, “and I took it as that…what else was I going to do?”
That was until one of his best friend and former high school classmate, Harold
Marsh, encouraged him to apply for admission to the school
Harold Marsh, entered the University in 1956, one other African American man.
He was amongst the second class of black undergraduate men that were allowed
to attend the University. Trice who had been looking at scholarships to Northeastern
schools or even a chance to attend Morgan State College or Hampton Institute
with his black classmates, decided to take Marsh up on his suggestion. Trice
was about to encounter the most interesting years of his life.
Aware of some of what he might face as an undergraduate student at the University,
a University that was historically white Southern male, and very proud of its
traditions, a University that was slowly and some would say reluctantly accepting
a handful of blacks, Trice refused to be daunted. “I wasn’t thinking
about social pressures. It was important to go to college and get a degree…period”.
Additionally, he believed that his attendance at UVA would be his contribution
to the “movement” toward racial equality.
At the University Trice studied Chemical Engineering and was the first African
American member of the Air Force ROTC at the University. The schoolwork work
was hard and rigorous. Trice buckled down determinedly in spite of the isolation
and alienation he felt. “There were some professors who probably preferred
I wasn’t there. There were some professors who were supportive,” Trice
said. “ The Chemistry department, Air Force ROTC, and senior English
department of the School of Engineering were supportive of me being there;
however the Chemical Engineering department, at that time, was not.
Trice experiences ranged from pleasant to unpleasant. At times, his presence
was oftentimes not acknowledged by his white classmates. Social settings, which
were few and far between for the African American students, were sometimes
Whenever Trice and his three other African American classmates went to football
games, they endured listening to the singing of Dixie, the song of the Confederacy
during the Civil War, whenever the UVA team scored a touchdown. The young men
also, made sure to remember the self-imposed rule of never sitting next to
a white person at the football or basketball games first. “Pick out a
place where you can be by yourself and let the whites come and sit beside you.
You don’t want to be hurt by sitting beside some whites and they get
up and move. And that was a guiding principle for us,” said Trice.
One day one of his black classmates forgot the rule and sat next to a white
male student and his date. The white student quickly got up and moved his date
to the other side of him and he sat right next to them. The action always struck
Trice as being an ultimate example of racist behavior.
School could oftentimes be very stressful. Trice was not enthused by chemical
engineering and wanted to enroll in a degree granting curriculum in the College
of Arts & Sciences. He had always wondered why black students were not
allowed in the College to study what they wanted. Trice, his classmates Walter
Payne, and a new black student named Leroy Willis decided to go talk to the
Chair of the Chemical Engineering Department about becoming students in the
College. To that point, no black students had been allowed in the College and
Trice, Payne, and Willis wanted to change the status quo. Despite Brown v.
Board in 1954, and the ordering of many universities across the South to desegregate,
Virginia stubbornly adhered to the “separate but equal law”. As
a result, the Chair of the Chemical Engineering Department suggested they all
go to Virginia State University (the Virginia college for black students then)
if they wanted a degree in Chemistry. “They have a college for “your
people” in Petersburg,” said the Department Chair. Seemingly the
three students absorbed the remark differently. For Trice, “I dug in
right there,” he said. “I said, if it takes me forever, I am going
to get my degree in chemical engineering. Walter Payne transferred out of the
University and got his Ph.D in Chemistry at American University. And Leroy
Willis? “Leroy became determined,” remembered Trice, “he
rallied support behind him and that’s how the College was integrated
Since most social events at the University were uncomfortable, if not hostile
to black students, Trice and his fellow black classmates would always spend
quality time with other blacks in Charlottesville. “The black community
in Charlottesville,” said Trice, “was extremely supportive”.
The black community of Charlottesville, was the “Office of African American
Affairs” for these young black college men. It was where many of them
would meet up to relax and receive a hot home cooked meal. “I don’t
think that many of us would have finished during those times. Those were tough
times. And not having someone that supported you and having someone you can
be around and not always be on your p’s and q’s and just be yourself
and be taken for yourself. That was extremely rewarding,” said Trice.
Amongst the families they would visit regularly were the Jacksons, the Bells,
the Paynes, and the Fergusons. Some of these families were of the black elite
in Charlottesville. Dr. Jackson, the patriarch of the Jackson family, was a
dentist. And the Fergusons were activists. Their daughter was part of the desegregation
process of Lane High School in the city of Charlottesville. This community
that was full of families, of church, were a great support for the young men.
Trice, even met his future wife at a social function.
During his time, Trice was involved in playing intramurals, his participation
in the Air Force ROTC earned him a place in the Arnold Air Honorary Society,
and Trice was also a part of the American Institute for Chemical Engineers. “Otherwise,” Trice
said, “It was always studying.”
Though some of Trice’s classmates were becoming activists who participated
in picketing segregated facilities in Charlottesville and helping to stage
sit ins, as the University moved slowly into the sixties. Trice opted not to.
His point was to focus on his studies, do well and therefore make his point
in a less public manner.
During, Trice’s time as a student at the University, he bared witness
to many historical moments. Leroy Willis desegregated the College of Arts & Sciences.
Willis would also have the privilege of being the first African American to
live on the Lawn, an honor bestowed on scholars and extracurricular active
students at UVA. Trice’s friend and classmate, Harold Marsh, his friend
who had encouraged him to apply to UVA, became the first black man to receive
Intermediate Honors. Friend and classmate, Wes Harris was the first man, black
or white, to successfully complete the Engineering Honors program. Harris was
second man to live on the Lawn, not long after Willis’ turn.
For Trice, upon completion of his degree, was the first African-American to
receive the Bachelor of Chemical Engineering degree. He was also the first
African-American to be commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant from the University’s
Air Force ROTC Unit. Graduated. Trice became rather active with the University.
Trice was a visiting professor at the School of Engineering for which he received
a prestigious award, the Brent S. Halsey Distinguished Visiting Professor Award
in Chemical Engineering. Trice is a member of the Raven Society, the Alpha
Chapter (Virginia) of Tau Beta Pi as an Eminent Engineer, and a former board
member of the Virginia Engineering Foundation, and was nominated for Black
Engineer of the Year (National) in 1991. Trice was also one of the key speakers
for the150th anniversary of the Engineering School. He has also spoken at National
Society for Black Engineers events, and was Chair Emeritus of the Walter N.
Ridley Scholarship Fund, which benefits many young black UVA scholars today
On returning to UVA, Trice remarks about how times have greatly changed. “I
hear some grumbling when I come back, but probably no more than the rest of
society. But things have changed greatly. There are blacks on the Board of
Visitors. Black students have important positions and posts for the student
body. When I was there blacks could not play in the ACC conference”,
Reflecting over his time at the University, does Trice think of himself as
a pioneer? Not the traditional pioneer. Probably the best description of me
that I have heard was “You have always been a “quiet pioneer,” said
Trice, “I am not an activist pioneer, but I am comfortable with the term “quiet
Currently, Trice is in business consulting after retiring from the Chemical
Group of Mosanto Company, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was a member of