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In Memoriam | Spring 2021

In Memoriam: James Mason Trice Jr.

September 26, 1939–October 5, 2020

Alumnus Trice was a “quiet pioneer” who helped integrate UVA

James Trice (Engr ’63) had settled in on his first night at UVA when he was startled by loud knocking at the door of his room, Metcalf 217.

James Mason Trice Jr. David Skinner

Trice ignored it at first, but the knocking continued. Already nervous—it was 1957, and he was one of just two dozen Black undergraduates at UVA—Trice became alarmed. He considered his options. Among them: jumping from the window of the second-floor room.

“He thought: ‘If they are coming to get me, I might break my leg, but I’ll be OK,’” said his son, Dr. James Trice III (Res ’95).

His fellow students merely wanted to tell him he had left his key in the door. When Trice heard that, he was overcome by relief, his son said.

“That made him understand, ‘Hey, I’m going to be all right.’”

Trice, who died Oct. 5 at age 81, enjoyed telling the anecdote. It helped inspire the title of a book: The Key to the Door: Experiences of Early African American Students at the University of Virginia, co-edited by Maurice Apprey, UVA’s Dean of African American Affairs.

Among UVA’s first African American students, Trice was a “quiet pioneer” according to a history of desegregation at the University written by Atima Omara (Col ’03). He endured the social snubs, isolation and racial discrimination experienced by African American students at the time, but remained undaunted.

“I wasn’t thinking about social pressures,” he said in the history. “It was important to go to college and get a degree … period.

“There were some professors who probably preferred I wasn’t there. There were some professors who were supportive.”

Trice grew up in segregated Richmond rooting for the Cavalier football team. Attending UVA never occurred to him, until Harold Marsh (Engr ’60, Law ’66), a friend who had enrolled the year before, encouraged him to apply. Trice hoped to enroll in the College of Arts & Sciences, but it was off-limits to Black students at the time.

Trice became the first African American to receive a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He was also the first African American member of the Air Force ROTC at UVA. After serving in the Air Force, he worked as an engineer and executive at Monsanto in St. Louis.

Trice returned as a visiting professor in the school of engineering and became a leader among the school’s African American alumni. He was a driving force behind UVA’s first Black Alumni Weekend, held by the Alumni Association in 1987.

“Jim really was the guy who had all the connections to all of the first Black graduates,” said Michael Mallory (Educ ’80, ’86), then an assistant dean of admissions and later UVA’s Director of Minority Recruitment. “No one had the power to pick up the phone and tell people to come back the way he did.”

Some were understandably reluctant to return to a school where the band had played “Dixie” at football games and some white classmates would move if they sat near them. Among those who needed to be coaxed was John Merchant (Law ’58), the first African American graduate of UVA Law School. Trice persuaded Merchant, and at the inaugural Black Alumni Weekend, they announced the establishment  of a scholarship fund for African American students—the Walter N. Ridley Scholarship Fund. Since then, it has awarded more than 300 scholarships and held assets of $14.2 million as of Fiscal Year 2020.

Engaged as an undergraduate, Trice was a member of the Raven Society; he continued to stay active at UVA even after his graduation. He returned often in his work with Ridley, and stayed active in the School of Engineering, receiving a distinguished service award in 1991. When his son did his medical residency at University Hospital, “That was just another excuse to come back to UVA,” Trice III said.

“He loved UVA. There were some challenges, but the overall experience was very positive. I just can’t stress that enough.”

Trice is survived by his wife, Gloria Trice, his son, James, and his sister, Ophelia Trice.

 —Ed Miller