Perry Wallace 

The other guys on the court played basketball. He played for history.

The other guys on the court played basketball. He played for history.

Vanderbilt’s Perry Wallace Jr. was under the basket, another of his 894 collegiate rebounds firmly in hand, when an opposing player hit him in the eye. To this day, thirty-seven years since the knock, he still isn’t sure whether it was intentional. It was the kind of thing, he says, that can happen in any basketball game as opponents surround the rebounder.

But this wasn’t just any game. It happened just five years after the massive riots that left two people dead as James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, and this game marked the initial invasion of the Ole Miss gym by the first black player in the Southeastern Conference. When Wallace got hit in the eye, Rebel fans cheered wildly.

“The whole environment was, 'Let’s get him,’ ” remembers Wallace, a soft-spoken law professor now living in Washington, D.C., who this Saturday will see his college jersey become only the third, male or female, to be retired by the Black and Gold.

Memories resurrected by the experience will almost certainly be bittersweet. “In some of these places, you had cheerleaders leading racist cheers,” he reflects, before confessing that he didn’t hear many of the organized slurs and insults because his personal hell was somewhat insulated by concentration on what he was there to do.

“People told me about them after the games,” he adds. “Psychologically, it was important to block things out. But a lot of things got through, and I saw a lot of stuff from the individual cheerleaders—because they were right down on the floor, being very nasty. What was sad was that you could see it in their faces, in their eyes. I could see them looking directly at me, cheering against me.”

Wallace wasn’t loved by every one of his fellow Vanderbilt students, either, especially at first, but road games in the up-close-and-personal crackerbox college gyms of that era were his primary concern. The “big four” in virulence, he says, were “both of the Mississippi schools and the Alabama schools (Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama).” Georgia, too, he adds, “wasn’t exactly like church.”

Only his home court, well-behaved Memorial Gym in Nashville, was anything approaching that. Thorpe Weber, Wallace’s roommate on the road, recalls that opposition fans didn’t just vent “tremendous racism.” They threw Cokes and did “unmentionable” things.

But the abuse carried a price, opponents found. Playing Wallace was no sip of mint julep. Then-coach Roy Skinner says that although “there were catcalls every place we played,” the vociferousness of the racist crowds “did what I wanted it to: It fired Perry up.”

Teammate Weber recalls that many of Wallace’s best games as a Commodore came “in those hostile arenas,” and the records bear that out. Wallace teams played Ole Miss six times and won five, and the only loss came at Memorial.

But the first of his racism-inspired performances was that Mississippi game in which he took the shot to the eye. He was a sophomore (freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity sports then), and another African American who had been recruited along with him had hurt a knee, missed the trip and eventually left school.

Left to bear blackness alone, Wallace did it proud.

“I had been in a slump,” he remembers of that game. “I had mononucleosis. But what Ole Miss created was a stark mandate to do well. I came out of my slump at Ole Miss. Once I did that, I really came back as a player.”

Vanderbilt vanquished Mississippi that night, 90 to 72, as Wallace grabbed 11 rebounds and scored 14 points, some of the first of his many. Despite seeing his specialty, the slam dunk, banned by the NCAA just as he became eligible for varsity play (requiring him to “learn to shoot” all over again, Skinner says), he scored 1,010 points over his three-year varsity career.

In terms of character required, what he did for Vanderbilt, the SEC and the South dwarfs the vaunted accomplishments of Clyde Lee and Wendy Scholtens, the other Commodore basketballers whose jerseys have been laid aside. To Wallace teammates, the achievement is magnified further by the quiet and brainy grace with which he accomplished that and many other things then and since.

At Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering, Perry Wallace’s academic record was brilliant. His senior year, he was elected most popular male on campus. Since graduation, he not only has taught law at American University but he has worked for American ideals of justice and harmony around the world.

What he went through for his Vanderbilt diploma, however, was his trial by fire. Its nature can perhaps be most appreciated by teammates who witnessed it up close. Weber, now with SunTrust Bank, calls their association “an experience I cherish.” Local public relations executive Jerry Southwood, an upperclassman who also roomed with Wallace in some of his first college days, says simply that he is “just happy to call him a friend. He was the Jackie Robinson of the SEC. He made history.”

Unlike Weber, reared on military installations where interracial athletics already were well-established, and Southwood, who came to Vanderbilt from an integrated background in Indiana, Wallace is a native Nashvillian. He says his parents were “poor folks who migrated in from Murfreesboro” in the 1930s with eighth-grade educations. They moved into the area near Tennessee State and Fisk universities and found jobs as laborers.

Wallace Sr. laid brick until Wallace Jr., their youngest child, was about three. Then, with Nashville construction projects booming, his father opened a brick-cleaning company and set about moving his family up into the lower end of the city’s black middle class.

During Wallace Jr.’s early years, he recalls, he saw little discrimination because segregation tended to confine him to the black community. As he got older, though, his parents moved into a more racially mixed neighborhood around Clay Street near Clarksville Highway, where walks home from school could sometimes get ugly.

He started playing sports early and got a foundation that served him well. North Nashville was “a pretty tough basketball environment,” he says, recalling competition “on black playgrounds and out at Tennessee State with the [college] basketball and football players in the summer.

“Tough, hard, rough sports was really no big thing,” he says.

Tall and fast, he became a dominating player at Pearl High School, which in 1966, his senior year, won every game on the schedule. Then something epochal happened. Just five years after Nashville’s sometimes-violent lunch-counter sit-ins, black high school basketball teams were declared eligible to play in the same state tournament as white high school teams.

The result demolished any fanciful notions of white basketball supremacy. Pearl, with not only Wallace but still another high school All-American, jumped, ran and shot its way to the championship, placing no fewer than four of its players on the all-tournament team. Eighty colleges and universities pursued Wallace—all of them in the North.

Then, out of the blue, he heard from across town.

Jerry Southwood conjectures that Vanderbilt’s antennae went up on account of Ed Martin, the legendary coach at Tennessee State. Skinner says that he and Martin were “good friends” but adds that Wallace was hardly the kind of player any Nashville college coach could miss.

“The papers were full of him, and as far as I know everybody knew about him,” Skinner says. “I saw him play several times, and he was a straight-A student. He fit the bill perfectly.”

Skinner had wanted to fill that bill for some time. He had tried to recruit Northern blacks for three or four years, he says, but found none willing to come South to Vanderbilt. The school’s image had suffered throughout academic circles since 1961, when it had dismissed African American James Lawson from its divinity school after he became publicly identified with the sit-ins.

But in 1963, a new chancellor, Alexander Heard, took the Vanderbilt helm, and the university passed word to campus recruiters that it wished to change course. Skinner was one of the people who got the word.

“I went to a meeting about putting balconies in the gym,” the coach remembers, “and the chancellor told me that they were open to it.”

Now, finally, Skinner had a home-grown prospect. Wallace’s dream—a traditional one many Southern blacks had cherished for decades before the civil rights era—was to go North, and he had planned to head there for college. But when Vanderbilt made its offer, he took it.

Wallace didn’t know what he was in for, he says, but he did know it wouldn’t be a picnic. Not only had he played before white crowds for the first time in the state high school tournament—held in Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym—but in his early teens he had lived on the sidelines of the Nashville civil rights struggles and was quite “aware” of them, he says.

To a lesser degree and from a different viewpoint, so was Jerry Southwood. He remembers driving back to Vanderbilt from Indiana on Highway 41A and, at various times, being detoured around the North Nashville battles by police signs.

Skinner says he received a half-dozen or so petitions against Wallace’s recruitment “with a lot of Vanderbilt people’s names on them.” He “didn’t pay any attention to them,” he adds, because he had the blessing of the chancellor.

So Wallace came to Vanderbilt. At 18, he stood an imposing six-feet-five and weighed 225 pounds, but Skinner, his teammates and Wallace himself all describe the new freshman as “very quiet.” It was the other black player whom Skinner recruited that year, Godfrey Dillard of Detroit, who was more of the political activist, Wallace recalls. Dillard soon became president of Vanderbilt’s tiny Afro-American Association.

Wallace, meanwhile, immersed himself in study and basketball practice. The first time Thorpe Weber saw his black classmate was in the gym, and he points to the memory as an example of Wallace’s work ethic. Wallace was there alone, practicing while wearing a heavy “weight-suit” to make the task more difficult.

In the Commodore lineup, Wallace played forward, but he opened each game at center because of his prodigious ability to jump. During his freshman year, the slam dunk was still allowed, and he recalls doing it against a Kentucky Wildcat freshman team and seeing vaunted Kentucky varsity coach Adolph Rupp, who wasn’t the coach of the Kentucky frosh, get “roaring mad” because of it.

The same year, the Ole Miss freshman team refused to play Vanderbilt at all, and cancelled the game. Ole Miss denied that it was because Vanderbilt had two black freshman players, Wallace says, “but everybody knew that wasn’t true.”

From the beginning, Wallace’s apprenticeship on the North Nashville playgrounds stood him in good stead.

“I’m sure there were some situations where people decided that they were going to take me out or rough me up or do whatever,” he says, “but I thought it was no different than the playground. I didn’t even recognize it.”

By the beginning of his sophomore year, Rupp and some colleagues got the NCAA to outlaw the dunk because of its alleged threat to basketball tradition. Skinner says Wallace would have scored many more collegiate points and made All-American hands-down had that not happened.

Wallace is philosophical about it.

“It produced a very positive result,” he says. “That was one of my best shots, and it was obviously a psychological thing with the crowds, and I probably would have scored more points. But it forced me to improve my overall offensive game. I was not a good shooter in the beginning, and I became a very good shooter.... It probably also took away some of the potential for injury.”

In front of some of the worst crowds, he explains, intimidated referees allowed opposing players to “go at me pretty good”—and when a player is in midair dunking the ball, “you can screw a guy up pretty good. In those gyms, as hostile as they were, it took a lot for a referee to have some integrity.”

He remembers his fellow Commodore players as “decent guys” who “showed a level of civility” and provided “a certain amount of support.” But they and he “almost never talked about” what he was enduring.

The worst of that was on the court at away games. Off-court, segregation had been at least nominally relegated to the recent past, and at “national [motel] chains like Holiday Inn” where the Commodores stayed, that tended to be the actual case.

“You’d have, here and there, somebody who would be real nasty at the front desk or something, but there weren’t a lot of problems,” Wallace says. “They gave us our keys, I went to my room, then they had a meal set up for the whole team. So it minimized the opportunities for real contact in situations where there could have been big problems.”

He laughs.

“It’s not like I went out sightseeing in these places. I wasn’t curious, anyway. I had grown up in the South, and I knew that there were dangerous places all around. You identified the places where you could go, and you went very quickly past the places where you couldn’t.”

Black pioneering in previously white areas can mean a psychological cost. Wallace says he has wondered if that was the case with a black Auburn player a couple of years behind him who eventually committed suicide.

At graduation time, the media interviewed Wallace. During these interviews, he finally opened up and disclosed some of what his college experience had felt like. He says now that he believed he had to “tell enough of the truth to make people understand what real progress is made of and that a great deal of work remained if any true and meaningful integration was going to happen.” He told only “10 percent” of the truth, he says, but it “made a lot of people very mad.

“We Americans like these feel-good movies with happy endings,” he says, “and I think what people were anxious to do was take that nasty, ugly problem of race and kind of give it a nice, happy ending.

“I understood at the time that people wouldn’t understand, and I left town after graduation. I just resumed my plan to go up North. I knew I was going to have to live somewhere else.”

In his own psyche, Wallace reflects, the pioneering experience left its mark. It instilled in him a “real sense of caution, because I saw what could come out of people.... I also saw that there was only going to be so much protection from that from American institutions and that I was on my own. That gave me a great lack of a sense of security. But I’ve worked on this [psychological] stuff, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job to be at a point where I can be comfortable and not always running around worrying about race in America.

“I’ve figured out some things about how to situate myself geographically, socio-economically, professionally, so that I live a comfortable life. I’m proud that I could do the sort of recovery that you have to do when you’ve been beat up like that, and that I’ve turned it into a life that’s much, much better.”

A professor of corporate and environmental practice at American University’s law school since 1991, he lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife Karen, a professor of French at Howard University, and their 12-year-old daughter Gabrielle. He also does “humble” work abroad in the interest of international justice and goodwill. Ever the student, he recently has begun to lecture and write in French in connection with efforts to promote understanding between “France and Europe on the one hand” and America.

His Vanderbilt experience changed the non-radical engineering student. He remains quiet and good-humored, but a heightened social concern arising out of his college years drew him “more toward social justice.” After graduation (and being picked in the draft by the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers), he worked with the National Urban League in Washington, then went on to Columbia University in New York to get a law degree, which he found “much more exciting” than engineering.

Although he hasn’t lived in Nashville since the summer after his Vanderbilt graduation, and despite many other honors (“SEC Living Legend” designation, induction into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, etc.), he says he looks forward to Vanderbilt’s retirement of his jersey with so much excitement that “it’s almost scary.”

Asked for his feelings about his alma mater itself, he doesn’t hesitate. He says he retains an “immense respect” for former chancellor Heard, and he praises the university, which has greatly diversified its demographics since his own student days. It is to be admired, he says, “for being very good about seeing the future and being willing to take some risks in that direction.

“I think you have to measure them as much about what they have done and what they’re willing to risk doing as you do on what they might not have done,” he adds. “All you need to do is think about all the institutions and people, then and now, who are not willing to take a chance on investing positively in the future. I think it’s a very special institution.”

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