First African-American SEC scholarship athlete, Perry Wallace passes at age 69

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Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos with Perry Wallace in 2015 at the announcement of the Vanderbilt scholarship in honor of Wallace. (photo: Vanderbilt University)

Perry Wallace, pioneer for helping to break the color barrier in college sports has died at age 69.

He was the first African American varsity athlete to play basketball under an athletic scholarship in the Southeastern Conference, playing for Vanderbilt University. His experiences at Vanderbilt are the subject of the book Strong Inside, by Andrew Maraniss, published in 2014.

Wallace attended Pearl High School in the then segregated Nashville public schools. He helped Pearl High School’s basketball team go undefeated and win the team’s first integrated basketball state championship. He was a straight-A student, valedictorian of his class and was named a high school All-American athlete.

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Perry Wallace – Vanderbilt University’s Perry Wallace is pictured in Memorial Gym. Wallace was the first Black to play Basketball for the SEC and for the Vanderbilt Commodores. (Vanderbilt Photo/Neil Brake VU Magazine Athletics Basketball)

Wallace was recruited by many colleges, and enrolled at Vanderbilt in 1966. He was one of two African American players who arrived at Vanderbilt that year, but the other, Godfrey Dillard, was injured before he could earn a varsity letter (at the time, freshmen were not eligible to play on NCAA varsity teams), and ultimately transferred to and played at Eastern Michigan.

In 1967, Perry became the first Black scholarship athlete to play basketball in the Southeastern Conference.

Wallace got the full treatment as the focus for racial prejudice in and outside of Vanderbilt.

“Perry talked about his feelings before he would go off on road trips as the deepest sense of dread,” said Andrew Maraniss, author of Wallace’s biography. “He would imagine the worst that could happen, and that was to get shot and killed on the basketball court or around town before the game.

“There weren’t that many Black students, period, at the school at the time. It was a very lonely experience, socially. Fraternities were still segregated at the time. Some of the professors were openly hostile to Black students.”

“As a Nashville native and someone who grew up watching games at Memorial Gym, Perry Wallace was always someone I knew was important in Vanderbilt basketball history,” said Nashville PRIDE sports writer Jeremy Ledbetter in a story he wrote about Wallace. “As I grew older, covering many games there, I learned to understand his greatness as a player. I was there in 2004, when Vanderbilt finally retired his #25. I met the man and had my eyes opened.

“Perry Wallace had far more value to mankind than to basketball. He is not just a basketball hero. He is one of almost immeasurable stature. Perry Wallace was at times a reluctant hero, one who did not sometimes understand himself the importance of his stance on issues—sometimes meaning more than those he displayed on the court. Wallace was often vulnerable, but always impenetrable.”

Wallace became the first Black athlete to complete four years at an SEC school, graduating with a degree in engineering in 1970, and was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers.

In 1970, he was awarded the Bachelor of Ugliness, a whimsically titled but prestigious student prize. He responded with a press interview in which he described some of the loneliness he had felt on campus throughout the four years, ranging from small slights and the lack of true inclusion by or friendship from well-meaning people to overtly racist professors and racist incidents, such as a demand from the conservative University Church of Christ, located across the street from the campus but not affiliated with it, that he not attend church services there because of his race.

In the following season, basketball teams from Alabama, Kentucky, Florida and Georgia contained Black athletes.

David Williams, Vanderbilt University’s vice chancellor for Athletics and University Affairs and athletics director said that the news of Wallace’s passing “saddened us all. Perry Wallace stood for all that is good in each of us. I had the good fortune to visit Perry a week ago and while he clearly knew his time was limited, his spirits were high and he expressed his love and appreciation for this great university. I say to everyone associated with Vanderbilt, ‘Perry gave us so much more than we ever gave him.’ My brother, rest in peace.”

“Vanderbilt, the sports world, and the entire country lost a civil rights icon today,” said Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Perry Wallace, who through quiet strength and courage blazed a trail that still serves as a lesson in resilience and perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles. We are more fortunate for having known him and for his legacy at Vanderbilt. While his passing sadly comes just as we come together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Perry’s groundbreaking achievement, his legacy will live on. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.”

Wallace was inducted into the Tennessee Hall of fame in 2003, and in 2004 Vanderbilt retired his number.