Perry Wallace, College Basketball Pioneer, Is Dead at 69

Perry Wallace, College Basketball Pioneer, Is Dead at 69


Perry Wallace, who became the first black varsity basketball player in Southeastern Conference history in the 1960s as a strong-rebounding forward for his hometown Vanderbilt University in Nashville, died on Dec. 1 at a hospice in Rockville, Md. He was 69.

His wife, Karen, said the cause was cancer.

Wallace, who later became a lawyer, was a high school star in Nashville and one of the country’s top schoolboy players. When he accepted a scholarship to play at Vanderbilt in May 1966, he was, at 18, agreeing to become a racial pioneer.

The conference was resistant to integration even as the civil rights movement was at its peak. One symbol of that intransigence was the powerful Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp, whose all-white teams had won four national championships. But his Wildcats lost the 1966 N.C.A.A. men’s tournament final in an upset to Texas Western, whose starting five was all African-American.

“In the final analysis,” Wallace said, “I thought a long time about being the first Negro boy in the S.E.C.”

Nearly 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Wallace stepped onto the Vanderbilt campus and was jolted by what he encountered. He had one black teammate, Godfrey Dillard, on Vanderbilt’s freshman team, but he spent the next three years on the varsity team without one.

His white teammates and coaches did not understand how isolated he was, and he felt betrayed by those who had recruited him.

“The entrance of your first black athlete involved deception,” he told the school’s human relations council in remarks in 1968 that were first published in “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South” (2014), by Andrew Maraniss. During his recruitment, he said, he was lied to about the extent of racism on the campus and the sort of social life he would have as one of the few blacks enrolled there.

One teammate, he said, suggested that Wallace would have “enjoyed the old slave-breeding camps” and asked him about picking cotton. “My first year here involved a battle with my teammates to defeat their knowing and unknowing attempts to categorize me as the ‘team nigger,’ ” he added.

Perry Wallace, right, in 2016 with Godfrey Dillard, who played alongside him on Vanderbilt’s freshman squad.CreditAssociated Press

Wallace dreaded the thought of playing in Mississippi, with its poor civil rights record. But in early 1967, the Commodores flew to Starkville to play Mississippi State. Wallace and Dillard, his freshman teammate, were inundated with racial epithets and threats of lynching, mainly by Mississippi State football players.

“Not that high-class bigotry is worthy of praise,” Wallace said in “Strong Inside,” “but these guys at Mississippi State were just low-class, crude, ignorant rednecks. And they were screaming and hollering and insulting us, calling us names, saying they were going to kill us, and, as the game started, it got worse.”

As time ran out in the first half, Wallace heaved the ball downcourt. And many in the crowd shouted, “Shooooot,” using the racial epithet.

Vanderbilt lost the game, 84-70, but Wallace scored 13 points and led both teams with 19 rebounds. His and Dillard’s ordeal was not over, though. They were abused as they sat in the bleachers to watch Vanderbilt’s varsity play.

More than a year later, the team traveled to Oxford to play the University of Mississippi. Wallace was a sophomore and the only black on the varsity; Dillard was injured all season and would transfer to Eastern Michigan University in his junior year.

The verbal attacks that fans directed at Wallace were as bad as they had been in Starkville; they applauded and laughed at each of his mistakes. Then an Ole Miss player hit him in the eye, bloodying and staggering him and blurring his eyesight. He was treated at halftime but returned to the court alone, without the support of a teammate or a coach beside him.

Still, he helped start a 20-4 run that secured the Commodores’ 90-72 victory.

“Things were so bad, it was so oppressive,” he told Mr. Maraniss, “and so much bad stuff had happened, that sure, it pushed me to another level. But I don’t think that’s the way you ought to have to play ball, to have that kind of challenge.”

Perry Eugene Wallace Jr. was born in Nashville on Feb. 19, 1948. His father had a construction business, and his mother, the former Hattie Haynes, was a domestic worker.

At the all-black Pearl High School, where he was the class valedictorian, he led the basketball team to an undefeated season and a state championship in 1966 — the first time black, white and integrated schools played in the same Tennessee state tournament. The Tennessean called him the school’s “high-jumping Goliath of the backboards,” and Parade magazine named him one of the country’s top 10 high school basketball players.

He was courted by dozens of colleges and visited seven campuses beside Vanderbilt’s, including Michigan, Cincinnati, Iowa and Louisville. He chose Vanderbilt, he said, because of Coach Roy Skinner’s sincerity and the comfort he felt with the players — but also because it was his mother’s choice.

Dillard, who also went on to become a lawyer, told The Michigan Chronicle earlier this year that “the pressures from the black community in Nashville for him to go Vanderbilt” — and break the color barrier — were “tremendous.”

Mr. Maraniss said in a telephone interview that Wallace considered leaving Vanderbilt after his freshman year. “But he felt that he had started something that was too big to quit,” he said. “He didn’t want to satisfy the people who felt he would fail.”

Wallace improved in each of his three seasons on the varsity, culminating in a senior year in which he averaged 17.7 points and 13.5 rebounds a game. After graduating in 1970 with an engineering degree, he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers but cut during the preseason. He played sparingly for the Delaware Blue Bombers of the minor-league Eastern Basketball Association and was a student teacher at a high school in Philadelphia before graduating from Columbia Law School.

Over the years, he worked as a trial lawyer for the Justice Department, specializing in environmental law, and as a law professor at the University of Baltimore Law School and the Washington College of Law at American University. He also worked internationally on various projects, including serving as a representative of the Federated States of Micronesia at a United Nations global warming hearing in Kenya.

Anthony Varona, a law professor at American University, wrote in an email that Wallace’s legal scholarship focused on “the need for corporate accountability, transparency, and the protection of the less advantaged against corporate malfeasance.”

In addition to his wife, the former Karen Smyley, Wallace is survived by his daughter, Gabrielle, and his sisters, Bessie Garrett, Jessie Jackson and Annie Sweet. He lived in Silver Spring, Md.

Ms. Wallace said that when he described the racism he endured, it wasn’t with anger. “He felt the pain and suffering, but he was soft-spoken and didn’t talk about it with rage,” she said in a telephone interview. “He was not a belligerent man.”

Wallace’s college career ended emphatically in 1970 during a loss at home to Mississippi State. He grabbed 27 rebounds and scored 29 points, the last two on a slam dunk — a shot the N.C.A.A. had banned in 1967, ostensibly to prevent injuries, although many believed it was to curb the scoring advantage of big men.

To Wallace, the prohibition against slam dunks was like segregation laws: made to be shattered. “They were the law, but they weren’t just,” he told NPR in 2014. “And so that is what I think of all those unjust and illegal rules. There it is — slam dunk.”



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