The Trailblazers: Their Stories

James Trice

Class of 1963

First African-American to receive a bachelors in Chemical Engineering

First African-American to be commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force ROTC Unit at the University.

Member, Arnold Air Honorary Society

Currently: Business Consultant at a firm in St. Louis Missouri

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The Preface

 The Road to Desegregation at UVA| The University 1955-75: The Timeline

UVA & the USA in the 1950s| UVA & the USA in the 1960s| UVA & the USA in the Early 1970s

“ Quiet Pioneer”

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 uncomfortable. 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 [in 1961].

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”, he says.
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 pioneer”.

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 senior management.





Works Cited