Reconciliation without the truth is just acting.
Perry Wallace was the wisest person I ever met, and he had a knack for making profound statements in direct and memorable terms.
He grew up playing the trumpet and maintained a love for jazz his entire life, and he used language like a riffing musician, changing his tempo or the tenor of his voice, repeating words for emphasis, raising his right index finger to make a point.
Reconciliation without the truth is just acting. He said that many times. And I know that he was especially proud that when the Vanderbilt community reconciled with Perry Wallace, it was done with a full understanding of the truth. It was real. It was not for show.
As Director of Athletics David Williams has said on many occasions, Perry Wallace did more for Vanderbilt than Vanderbilt ever did for Wallace. Wallace was a brilliant student – valedictorian of his class at Pearl High School – before he came over to West End. He was a talented musician, fluent in multiple languages, raised with strong parents and supportive older siblings. His family may not have had much money but this wasn’t the case of some aimless basketball player being rescued by the big college across town. Perry Wallace brought incredible gifts to Vanderbilt at a time the university was only just beginning to admit African American students.
Let’s not forget the truth of Wallace’s welcome to the land of the Commodore. Some fans sent petitions to Coach Skinner, threating to never come to another game if he signed a black player. Others sent menacing notes and even death threats to the Wallace home, letters his parents tried to keep hidden from their son. When Clyde Lee walked Wallace around campus on a recruiting visit, Perry was encouraged to see other student-athletes actually going to class. When Lee pointed out the University Church of Christ across the street and suggested Wallace attend, Perry took him up on it. He never would have walked through the doors of a white church growing up in segregated Nashville, but this is what being a pioneer was all about, he told himself, doings things no one had done before. Wallace had the courage to attend that all-white church. And the church members kicked him out, telling him some parishioners threatened to withhold donations until Wallace was gone.
When Wallace addressed a group of campus administrators to talk about the challenges faced on and off campus following his first year on the Vanderbilt varsity, athletics director Jess Neely suggested that if things were so bad, he should just leave. Wallace could have taken him up on the advice. But it was a teenage Wallace who understood what was at stake, even when the adult in the room didn’t. He belonged at Vanderbilt just like anyone else, Wallace said, and he wasn’t leaving.
The most courageous thing Perry Wallace ever did was tell the truth. Especially when he knew people didn’t want to hear it. That was certainly the case the day after his final game in 1970, when he sat down with Frank Sutherland of the Tennessean to talk about his experience as the Jackie Robinson of the SEC. Wallace said he felt a moral obligation to tell the truth about his experience, both for the benefit of those who would come behind him and for Vanderbilt. What if Lewis and Clark had explored the West and never told anyone about what they encountered, he’d say. It wouldn’t be fair, wouldn’t be right. Part of the obligation of being a pioneer, he believed, was to share the experience for the benefit of others.
So, Wallace told the truth, even though he suspected he was “writing his ticket out of town.” He understood a lot of people wouldn’t want to hear the truth. They wanted a happy ending, didn’t want to deal with the problems Wallace identified or confront their own racism.
The day the story ran on the front page of The Tennessean, Vanderbilt fans called to cancel their subscriptions, to call Wallace “an ungrateful son of a bitch,” and to wish him good riddance out of town. Wallace was never invited back to campus to be honored for his achievements for nearly 20 years. The campus community didn’t want to confront the truth, and there was no reconciliation.
It wasn’t until C.M. Newton invited Wallace back to speak to the Commodore Club in 1989 that things slowly began to change; the long and difficult march to reconciliation had begun. First, Wallace’s number 25 was retired by Williams in a 2004 ceremony at Memorial Gym where Wallace spoke and received a rousing ovation from the crowd at halftime. Then he was honored as Vanderbilt’s “legend” at the SEC Tournament and inducted into the inaugural class of the VU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008, where he addressed a rapt audience that included legendary civil rights figure Reverend James Lawson. Just this past weekend, a day after he died, hundreds of people packed Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium to view a documentary on his life, TRIUMPH.
I’ll always remember what Wallace said in December 2014, the day before we flew from Washington, D.C. down to Nashville to speak at the downtown public library. “I think,” he said, “we’re headed into a hot situation.”
We were going to do a Q&A related to the launch of STRONG INSIDE. Wallace recalled the reaction to the Tennessean article in 1970 and was curious, and a bit skeptical, about how he would be received this time around. I was hoping Wallace would encounter the new, friendly Nashville we hear so much about, and my fingers were crossed.
Immediately, any concerns were allayed. When Wallace was introduced to the crowd of 500, he received a long and rousing standing ovation. People lined up after the discussion for two more hours just to shake his hand, to give him a hug, to unburden their regrets. Many people were crying. I wish I had been there for you when you needed me, they’d say. I wish I had put myself in your shoes. I regret I didn’t do more. The next day, Wallace returned to Memorial Gym, where he was honored with the creation of the Perry Wallace Courage Award, and met with a long line of Commodore fans after the game, signing autographs late into the night.
In the years that followed, Wallace came back to campus numerous times, and he enjoyed it. He took great pride in simply sitting on a bench on campus and watching the students walk by. He said that if he were the type of guy who put bumper stickers on his car, his would be Black and Gold.
He received many more honors, spoke to groups small and large, developed close relationships with the likes of Chancellor Nick Zeppos, AD David Williams, Deputy AD Candice Lee, Dean Vanessa Beasley of the Ingram Commons and Dean Philippe Fauchet of the Engineering School. He felt a part of the Vanderbilt community, a result of the gradual progression of events that had taken place over the years, a more challenging road than many realized. Wallace and leadership at Vanderbilt navigated it strategically, and as a result people were no longer afraid of what Wallace might say; they were hanging on every word! They began to understand that Wallace was never angry at Vanderbilt; he was always just trying to make this place better. Wallace was never anti-Vanderbilt; he WAS Vanderbilt. He was always one of our own.
Acknowledging the truth, even when it hurt, didn’t weaken the institution, it made it stronger. And it made a beautiful reconciliation possible. We celebrate Wallace now with such passion and such pride because we know the truth about his experience. We admire his grace and his patience and his courage all the more. And we can take even greater pride in our alma mater. Even if the road was bumpy, it was Vanderbilt that went down the path of integration first. A man the caliber of the great Perry Wallace was a Vanderbilt Man.
Reconciliation without the truth may just be acting, but reconciliation with it is both priceless and timeless. May the lessons Perry Wallace taught us remain with us forever and bind us together as Commodores.
Andrew Maraniss is a Visiting Author at Vanderbilt and the author of STRONG INSIDE, the biography of Perry Wallace which has been published in both an original, ‘adult’ version and in a Middle Grade adaptation for young readers. Twitter: @trublu24