Perry Wallace, who broke down a racial barrier in the Deep South by becoming the first black varsity basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, has died after a battle with cancer.
Wallace, who died Friday at age 69 at a hospice center in Rockville, Maryland, went on to a distinguished career as a law professor. But it was his time on the basketball court as a player for Vanderbilt in the 1960s that made him a pioneer in race relations.
“Vanderbilt, the sports world and the entire country lost a civil rights icon,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos said in a statement late Friday.
Wallace made history when he played for Vanderbilt in a game against SMU on Dec. 2, 1967, becoming the SEC’s first black basketball player to compete in a varsity game. Two days later, he played in his first SEC varsity game for head coach Roy Skinner against Auburn.
Wallace arrived on the Vanderbilt campus in the fall of 1966 along with Godfrey Dillard, another black basketball player. The two huddled together in the locker room at halftime of a freshman game in Starkville, Mississippi, holding hands and trembling after rival fans spat, yelled slurs and threw things at them on the court.
Like many Southern universities a half-century ago, Vanderbilt had few black students and faculty members. Dillard later transferred, leaving Wallace in the pioneering role on his own.
Wallace routinely suffered indignities while playing for the Commodores.
“There were some rough times, especially when they had to go to Mississippi and places like that, but there was also some rough times for him out there on Vanderbilt’s campus,” Walter Fisher, a former high school teammate, told The Tennessean in 2015.
“But through it all, he said that being bitter can eat you alive. And I thought that was so noble of him, because a lot of the bitterness that he might have had during that time has subsided now. It’s over and done with and he didn’t allow it to change him as a person.”
Wallace not only endured, but he went on to become a first-team All-SEC player as a senior, and he still ranks among the Commodores’ best all-time rebounders.
It was a lesson in “resilience and perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles,” Zeppos said. Wallace’s legacy and groundbreaking achievement will live on, the chancellor said.
Wallace’s biographer, Andrew Maraniss, said he was among the “most important figures in American sports history.” Maraniss said he first interviewed Wallace for a class paper at Vanderbilt in 1989. Over the decades, Wallace became a mentor and father figure to him.
“He was a pioneer under extraordinarily difficult and dangerous circumstances,” Maraniss said. “He was an activist in his very existence. He was also one of the wisest, kindest and forgiving people I ever met.”
Wallace was selected in the National Basketball Association draft, but he never played an NBA game.
Wallace graduated from Vanderbilt in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and engineering mathematics. Wallace went on to earn a law degree at Columbia University in 1975 and served as a longtime law professor at American University. He also served in the U.S. Justice Department and worked for the National Urban League.
“Perry Wallace competed on the court the same way he lived his life: with an extremely rare blend of courage, strength, skill and grace under fire. We will miss this truly amazing man,” Nashville Mayor Megan Barry tweeted after hearing about Wallace’s death.
Wallace was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, and his jersey was retired by Vanderbilt the following year. He was inducted into Vanderbilt’s inaugural athletics Hall of Fame in 2008.
“Perry Wallace stood for all that’s good in each of us,” Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams said. “I say to everyone associated with Vanderbilt, Perry gave us so much more than we ever gave him. My brother, rest in peace.”