Former Vanderbilt basketball player Perry Wallace, who became the SEC’s first African-American varsity basketball player, died on Friday. He was 69.
"The information we received today informing us of the passing of our friend and fellow Commodore Perry Wallace has saddened us all," Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams said. "Perry Wallace stood for all that’s 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."
A high school All-American at Nashville's Pearl High School, Wallace led his team to a state championship on the heels of a 31-0 season as a senior in 1965-66. He was recruited nationally by more than 80 collegiate programs before choosing to attend Vanderbilt and play under head coach Roy Skinner. Along with Godfrey Dillard, a fellow African-American signee from Detroit, Wallace arrived on the Commodores’ campus in the fall of 1966.
On Dec. 2, 1967, Wallace made history in a game against SMU by becoming the SEC’s first African-American basketball player to compete in a varsity game. He played in his first SEC varsity basketball game two days later against Auburn. Wallace and Dillard had played together the previous season in 1966 as members of the university’s freshman team.
"Vanderbilt, the sports world, and the entire country lost a civil rights icon today," Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos said. "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 went on to earn First Team All-SEC honors during his senior season and remains one of the Commodores' best all-time rebounders, ranking second in program history with 894 boards and an average of 11.5 per game.
Wallace graduated from Vanderbilt in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and Engineering Mathematics. He went on to earn his law degree from the School of Law at Columbia University in 1975. He served as a professor of law at The American University in Washington, D.C. from 1991 until his passing.
Wallace was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and saw his No. 25 jersey retired by Vanderbilt in 2004. He was inducted into Vanderbilt’s inaugural athletics Hall of Fame in 2008.