Feb. 7, 2013
It has been very well documented that Perry Wallace (1968-70) was the first black basketball player in the SEC. Growing up in segregated Nashville, Wallace in basketball was All-State, All-City, All-Region and a high school All-American from the 1965-66 Pearl High basketball team. In that senior year, Pearl was undefeated (31-0) winning the state championship in the first year of the integrated Tennessee high school tournament. Wallace was about to become a pioneer.
"I wasn't somebody who grew up saying I'm going to be a civil rights leader," said Wallace. "I wanted to be a student-athlete. The problems were overwhelming enough that I had to start thinking in terms of being a pioneer. Who wants to be a pioneer? Jackie Robinson didn't want to be a pioneer. He said, 'If I'm pioneering that's good. What I want to do is be a baseball player.' I was really forced to start thinking like a pioneer in terms of progress."
The big name college basketball schools like UCLA, Michigan and Kentucky had recruited Wallace. He looked north and made visits to Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern and Iowa. The Big Ten had already been integrated with their athletic programs. In the SEC, Vanderbilt and Tennessee also desired Wallace's talent.
"I didn't consider the south because when I grew up, the south wasn't considering me or people like me," said Wallace. "I didn't just decide I didn't like the south that I'm not going to a school in the south. As I grew up in Nashville in the 1950s and into the 1960s it was simply impossible for me to reach my dreams. I didn't have anything against the southern schools. There was a racial line drawn between us."
At this time Vanderbilt was experiencing some of its finest years on the basketball court. During the 1964-65 season the Commodores won their first SEC championship with a 24-4 record. They followed that season at 22-4. These were the Clyde Lee years. Vanderbilt Coach Roy Skinner had been recruiting black players, but could never convince any to play in Nashville.
"Here is a great magical secret on how Coach Skinner got me to Vanderbilt," Wallace said. "He came over said `Hello.' He talked to my parents and me. He showed me he was a person. We were pretty down home. My parents grew up on a farm then they came to Nashville. We liked people to sit down and look you in the eye and talk. Just tell you they're very interested and sincere in talking business with us. It's not like there was some great formula from physics, that's what Coach Skinner did."
One week after Wallace signed his scholarship papers, Skinner signed another black with Godfrey Dillard from Detroit. Dillard went through the same tough freshman season with Wallace, but an injury kept him from playing as a sophomore and becoming the first black basketball player in the SEC.
In this era of college athletics, freshmen were ineligible for varsity play therefore freshmen teams competed against each other. Dillard would eventually transfer out of Vanderbilt never playing on the varsity. There was uncertainty of what would happen if blacks played basketball in the southern states.
"That was the big question in the air," Wallace said. "Nobody really knew the answer to it. It's not that Coach Skinner tried to do a lot of talking about that. I don't think he was trying to be deceptive. He just didn't know more than the rest of us. He was thinking like most people. We want to get you on our team. You would be one of ours and we'd take care of you and do our best. We don't know what's going to happen.
"In that freshman year the Ole Miss freshman team game was cancelled and that is well known by now. They claimed it was a scheduling problem, but they didn't want to play against blacks. There were two of us. Godfrey Dillard and I did go south to Mississippi State in Starkville and that's where we had that baptism by fire and water."
This was not a time where basketball was played in large arenas. Schools like Mississippi State and Auburn played their basketball games in `hangar-type' gyms. Wallace was a 6-foot-4 forward and the first ugly encounter was in Starkville. Mississippi State was forbidden by the state politicians to play in the NCAA Tournament due to the presence of black players.
"This was straight racism with enthusiasm," said Wallace. "People are enthusiastic, screaming and hollering anyway. But unfortunately what also was part of the mix were all the name-calling and the threats. Whenever I made any mistakes they cheered. Anything that looked like a failure. They really wanted me to fail and they ridiculed, bullied and badgered me. They would have cheerleaders lead cheers just against me.
"This is the part that's tricky. People would have different opinions. Some people would say that the referees would allow players to rough me up. Some people would say no that's just the game that is rigorous. In those days a lot of the football players were also basketball players. And so that is the kind of game they played. Nobody can prove whether or not the coaches told the players to go out there and rough Wallace up because that will give us a competitive advantage. There's no proof of it."
Wallace said that Skinner complained to the SEC administration about the abusive attention he was given during games. They felt that the referees were calling too many unnecessary goal-tending calls against Wallace. Though it was tough, Wallace kept his composure in dealing with the situation.
"I needed to be a model person," said Wallace. "That's what a racial pioneer has to do. Everything has to be perfect and proper as best as it can. Your behavior has to be exemplary. So things like complaining, yelling back at the crowd, yelling at the players, expressing frustration was something I couldn't do. I was also smarter than that. I knew that if I expressed frustration, or got into a tiff with the referees that I would spark an additional surge above and beyond the things that were going on with the crowd."
The environment grew worse when Wallace joined the varsity. While the Mississippi schools were bad, for Wallace to play basketball at Auburn, Alabama and LSU were just as intimidating. It was believed that Florida was beginning to adapt to the racial atmosphere due to the different culture in the southern portion of the state. Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp did recruit Wallace, but not personally.
"Kentucky was probably the best, but not perfect," said Wallace. "I always attribute that as maybe it was the most northern school in the south. A part if was due to their culture of sports and basketball. Coach Rupp obviously ran a tight ship. There was almost a glow about Kentucky basketball.
"The players didn't call you names. They didn't try to give you an extra elbow or push. These were excellent players and they were coached with high standards. My lasting memory against Kentucky home or away, other than a few scenes from people in the crowd just wasn't the same. I think Tennessee was average. It was better than Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana."
Wallace's family was very supported throughout this tumultuous ordeal. They knew most of what their son and brother were experiencing, but not all. Wallace did not want his family to see the indignation he was living.
"They did not go to the road games and I did not want them to go to the road games," Wallace said. "They just tried to be the best parents that they could. They didn't fully know what was going on at a trip. Sometimes on the radio you could hear the catcalls from the crowd when you listened to the game. That doesn't begin to give you a flavor.
"And they got letters. From the time I agreed to sign, we had letters and phone calls from people who were threatening death and those things. They had letters that I had never seen until a few years ago. My sisters kept a lot of those threatening letters. My parents kept it from me. We kept a lot from each other because we didn't want each other to suffer."
A bright spot for Wallace was his teammates. They supported and worked with him trying to make a bad situation tolerable. Wallace didn't expect these young teammates who were 18, 19 and 20 years old to be an expert and involved in civil rights.
Wallace was an outstanding basketball player for Vanderbilt. In his three varsity seasons the Commodores were 20-6, 15-11 and 12-14. He was named Second Team All-SEC as a junior and First Team All-SEC as a senior. Wallace was also voted by his teammates senior team captain.
On the university campus fellow students elected Wallace "Bachelor of Ugliness" the highest honor a male undergraduate could receive. Wallace ranks 42nd on the Vanderbilt career points list with 1,010 tallies. Wallace's career stats include 78 games, shooting 443-of-968 (.458) with a 12.9 scoring average. From the free throw stripe he hit 62% (124-of-200). Wallace is one of the Commodores' best all-time rebounders ranking second (894--11.5 rpg) behind Clyde Lee.
Wallace graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in engineering, received a law degree (Columbia University) and worked in the Justice Department. In 1992, he was appointed to the Environmental Policy advisory council of the EPA. He was a professor at Howard University and the University of Baltimore. Since 1993, Wallace has been a Professor of Law at the American University Washington College of Law and is tenured. Wallace specializes in environmental law, corporate law and finance.
On February 21, 2004 Wallace returned to the Vanderbilt campus and Memorial Gymnasium to receive a high honor. The university officially retired his jersey number "25." He joined Clyde Lee as having the only men's jerseys retired. The Nashville Metro Council proclaimed it "Perry Wallace Day."
"Once I got to Vanderbilt I played well, but I wasn't a super star," said Wallace. "At the end of my career I was the second leading rebounder in the history of the university while playing three years on the varsity instead of four years. I wasn't a great shooter or ball handler, but I grew during my years.
"That is an angle that I try to shed some light on. To be under that type pressure and have to deal with the embarrassment of not being perfect. I had to improve under that type pressure. That's one of the things I was most proud. They didn't recruit me because they needed somebody who was black. That was the wrong formula and would not have worked."
The group photo displayed in this story is (left to right), Thorpe Weber (31), Rudy Thacker (24) and Wallace.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email at WLTraughber@aol.com. Traughber's new book "Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History" is available online form Amazon.com and Nashville area bookstores.