Wallace Perry E. Jr. Biography
Excelled in School Sports, Broke the SEC Color Barrier, Endured Racist Assaults, Forged Successful Legal Career
College basketball player; law professor
As the first African-American player in college basket-ball's Southeastern Conference (SEC), Perry Wallace pioneered the way for black players to excel in this sport. Yet his years on the Vanderbilt University varsity team were marked by racist incidents and by a sense of isolation on campus. Despite daunting obstacles, however, Wallace became one of the school's most celebrated athletes as well as a distinguished alumnus with a career in legal education.
Excelled in School Sports
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1948 to Perry E. and Hattie Haynes Wallace, Perry Junior was the youngest of six children. He grew up in Nashville and attended racially segregated public schools. "It was segregation with an attitude," he commented to Black Athlete Sports Network writer Michael Hudson. "People had an attitude about where you were and what you were—and what they could do to you." Wallace showed early academic and athletic promise. At Pearl Senior High School, where he earned the nickname "king of the boards," he played center on the varsity basketball team. At six-feet, five-inches tall, he became famous for his powerful slam dunks. In 1965-66, the first year in which African-American students were allowed to participate in local, regional, and state championships, Pearl's team swept away the competition to become the first African-American team to win the Tennessee Secondary School Boys' State Basketball Tournament.
Wallace averaged 19 rebounds and 12 points per game, earning the distinction of high school All-American. Valedictorian of his graduating class with a straight-A average, he was recruited by more than 80 colleges and universities. "He was the best player in the region with major college aspirations, and he was smart," observed Roy Neel in The Vanderbilt Hustler. Faced with a wealth of college options, Wallace weighed his choices carefully. "When I was looking at schools," he commented in The Vanderbilt Hustler, "I was interested in a good education and playing major college basketball. But when you're black and growing up in the South, there are just not many opportunities."
Wallace expected to attend either a historically black college or a school in the North. "But then Vanderbilt came into the picture," he recalled. One of the country's top 20 universities, Vanderbilt, located in Wallace's hometown of Nashville, had been segregated for most of its history and did not accept its first black student until 1953. "I knew that it was going to take a lot of extra effort and resilience [to enroll there]," he remembered. "It was all a big unknown." Despite his doubts, Wallace chose Vanderbilt, mostly on the basis of its excellent engineering program.
Broke the SEC Color Barrier
Wallace entered Vanderbilt on an athletic scholarship in 1966. During his first year, he played on Vanderbilt's freshman squad because NCAA regulations prohibited freshmen from playing on the varsity team. Another black player, Godfrey Dillard, had come to Vanderbilt that year from Detroit and played with Wallace on the freshman squad. Dillard was later injured and did not go on to play on the varsity team. Though Vanderbilt fans accepted the black players, at away games Wallace and Dillard faced racist taunts and jeers from hostile crowds. "You could really hear the catcalls and threats and racial epithets," Wallace told USA Today reporter Jack Carey. "It was clearly racist stuff. They'd cheer when we made a mistake and yell 'Which one's Amos and which one's Andy?' It was literally chilling. There were times my hands were absolutely cold. That was a real baptism."
Wallace and Dillard supported each other as much as they could, but remained silent about the threats they received. "This was a horror," Wallace later told Hudson. "To even let it out and speak the words created the danger that you might actually realize what you had been through." Despite these intensely hostile conditions, Wallace finished his freshman season with an impressive average of 17 points and 20 rebounds per game.
When he joined the varsity squad the following year, becoming Vanderbilt's first African-American varsity athlete and the first African American to play basketball in the SEC, Wallace confronted a different game than he was prepared for: the NCAA had decided that year to ban the slam-dunk in college play. Some coaches and players saw this decision as an attempt to stop "black basketball," as played by such stars as UCLA's Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), from dominating the sport. In any case, the new rule forced Wallace to learn a whole new style of play. According to Roy Skinner, who was head basketball coach at Vanderbilt from 1961 to 1976, the ban on slam-dunks presented Wallace with a significant handicap. "They took away his game," Skinner recalled in The Vanderbilt Hustler. "He couldn't shoot worth a damn.… He basically had to start all over. He had to learn to play basketball, but he worked hard at it."
Indeed, by the end of his Vanderbilt career, Wallace had proved himself one of the school's greatest athletes. During his three varsity seasons, he improved his free-throw percentage from 50 percent in his sophomore year to 77 percent in his senior year, and raised his point average from 9.7 per game to 17.7 per game. In his senior year, he averaged 13.5 rebounds per game and scored 461 points for a career total of 1,010 points, making him one of 33 members of Vanderbilt's 1,000 Points Club. More than 30 years after graduating, Wallace remained the school's second-leading rebounder with a total of 894 career boards, as well as its 35th-best scorer.
Endured Racist Assaults
Success, however, did not come easily. When Wallace joined the varsity squad and began participating in SEC games, the virulence of the racist attacks against him increased. According to The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, "He experienced racism at its worst, particularly at SEC schools in Alabama and Mississippi. Cheerleaders led a volley of invective racist cheers. There were threats of beatings, castration, and lynching. He endured physical abuse on the court that referees refused to acknowledge as fouls. Wallace was harangued, taunted, and threatened throughout his SEC career." As the only black athlete on the court at away games, according to Hudson, Wallace felt like a "marked man."
In his first game at the University of Mississippi, in the Tad Smith Coliseum, Wallace was punched in the eye and badly injured while jumping up for a rebound. The crowd cheered after the attack. "It was an ugly incident," he recalled in The Vanderbilt Hustler. Determined not to allow such behavior to defeat him, he came back to the game in the second half to score 14 points and make 11 rebounds. "Struggling to stay inbounds between whites who wanted him to fail and African Americans who expected him to be a 'superstar,'" wrote a contributor to The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, "Wallace became the quintessential 'organization man.'" He refused to retaliate for violence against him on the court, knowing that a fight would only confirm negative stereotypes against black athletes. Instead, he played with renewed passion and skill to defeat his adversaries. As Hudson put it, Wallace "kept his mouth shut, played hard, sacrificed for Vanderbilt—and for black America." In his senior year, Wallace was chosen captain of the Vanderbilt varsity squad and was second-team All-SEC. He also received the SEC Sportsmanship Trophy, determined by league player vote, in 1970.
Wallace was popular off the court as well. In fact, according to Brad Golder in The Vanderbilt Hustler, one of his professors described him as an "honorary white guy" on campus, and the senior class voted him "Bachelor of Ugliness," an award given to the most popular man in the graduating class. At the same time, however, Wallace felt extremely isolated. After his final game in 1970, according to Golder, he decided to go public about the pressures he had endured and, in an interview with a Nashville newspaper, said that "I don't have any faith at all that people who say 'Hi' to me are addressing me as a human being.'" Many Vanderbilt alumni resented this comment, and some went so far as to accuse Wallace of disloyalty to the university. As Hudson put it, "People wanted to paint his years at Vanderbilt as an uncomplicated success story [but] although it was against his nature to make waves, he believed it was time to set the record straight."
In 2002, Wallace told Golder in The Vanderbilt Hustler that he doubted that he would choose to do it all over again. "I've realized too well how much it took," he commented. "I understand now the physical, psychological and emotional problems it caused." Lonely and threatened as Wallace felt during that period, however, he played a crucial role in desegregating college basketball. In 1970, the first season after Wallace graduated, the universities of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky created desegregated varsity teams; within the next decade, black athletes were routinely dominating SEC teams.
Forged Successful Legal Career
After earning a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and engineering mathematics from Vanderbilt, Wallace played briefly in the minor league but chose not to pursue a professional basketball career. He took a job with the National Urban League, where he worked for future U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, and then attended Columbia University's School of Law, where he was awarded the Charles Evans Hughes Fellowship. He earned his J.D. in 1975. He worked in the U.S. Justice Department and taught at the University of Baltimore before joining the faculty at Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, D.C.
Specializing in environmental law and in corporate law and finance, Wallace is active in several organizations, including the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Panel of Arbitrators. He also continues to give interviews about his experience as a pioneer in the desegregation in college sports. He and his wife, a Howard University professor, have one daughter.
Though he retired from sports shortly after his college career, Wallace remains one of Vanderbilt University's most acclaimed athletes. In 1996 he was named one of five Silver Anniversary All-American team members by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. In 2003 he was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2004 he represented Vanderbilt as an "SEC Living Legend" honoree at the SEC Basketball Tournament in Atlanta. Also that year, Vanderbilt retired his basketball jersey, making him only the third athlete in the school's history to receive this honor. "Perry Wallace is a Vanderbilt hero," said Chancellor Gordon Gee in a speech at the ceremony, quoted in The Vanderbilt Commodores. "It took great courage for him to come here, and he represented the university with great dignity and skill during a turbulent time. Perry's accomplishments—in the classroom, on the basketball court and throughout his life—are an inspiration to us all."
Douchant, Mike, Encyclopedia of College Basketball, Gale, 1995, p. 134.
Jet, March 15, 2004, p. 50.
USA Today, February 20, 2004.
Vanderbilt Hustler, February 26, 2002.
"Breaking Barriers: The Story of Perry Wallace, the SEC's First Black Athlete," Vanderbilt Commodores, www.commodores.com/news (August 18, 2004).
"College Basketball: Trailblazer Grows from Experience," Black Athlete Sports Network, www.blackathlete.com (September 9, 2004).
"Faculty Profile: Perry Wallace, Jr.," Washington College of Law, www.wcl.american.edu/faculty/wallace (August 19, 2004).
"Perry E. Wallace, Jr.," Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net (August 19, 2004).
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