Perry Wallace, Southeastern Conference (SEC) basketball trailblazer, was born in February 1948 in Nashville to Perry E. and Hattie Haynes Wallace. The youngest of six children, he received his primary and middle school education at Nashville’s segregated public schools. Wallace, a straight-A student and class valedictorian, graduated in June 1966 from Pearl Senior High School.
Wallace played center on Pearl’s basketball team, where he was known for his slam dunks and referred to as “king of the boards.” In 1965-66, the first year the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) allowed African Americans to participate, Pearl romped through district, regional, and state competitions. At the end of an undefeated season, Pearl Senior High School became the first African American team to win the TSSAA’s Boys’ State Basketball Tournament, posting a perfect season of thirty-one games and a two-year, forty-three-game winning streak.
Averaging nineteen rebounds and twelve points per game, high school All-American Perry Wallace was recruited by more than eighty colleges and universities, but in May 1966 he signed with Vanderbilt University. Wallace became the first African American “Commodore” to participate in varsity sports at the Nashville school and in SEC basketball.
During his freshman year, Wallace encountered segregation’s “flood of hatred” during games at Mississippi State, the University of Tennessee, and Auburn University. In spite of racism, Wallace completed his freshman year averaging seventeen points and twenty rebounds per game. On December 2, 1967, Wallace became the first African American varsity student-athlete to compete in the SEC. Segregationists’ ire intensified. 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.
When racial malevolence confronted him, Perry Wallace mentally retreated to the north Nashville school where he last experienced the comfort and solace of community support. “On that night in Starkville, Mississippi, Perry sang the Pearl High Alma Mater,” said his friend, high school and college classmate, the Reverend Walter R. Murray (who later became Vanderbilt’s first African American administrator and board of trust member). While coaches and teammates “chose not to see the racism,” Wallace said, “I . . . wanted somebody to say, you’re not crazy, I heard those people . . . calling you ‘nigger’ and threatening to hang you, I . . . want you to know I’m with you.” (1)
Struggling to stay inbounds between whites who wanted him to fail and African Americans who expected him to be a “superstar,” Wallace became the quintessential “organization man.” He never retaliated against players who maliciously fouled him. Wallace realized that any perceived misconduct on his part could impede the progress of SEC desegregation. While the most noticeable person on the basketball court, he was unnoticed on the Vanderbilt campus; known by all, no one knew him. Wallace recognized that most people failed to see him as a full person; moreover, they had no concept of the problems of African Americans.
The first African American to complete four years in the SEC, Perry Wallace ended his tenure as captain of the Vanderbilt varsity team and second-team All SEC. The senior class voted Wallace Bachelor of Ugliness, an honor awarded to the most popular and most appreciated male class member. After his graduation, the universities of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky opened the 1970 SEC season with desegregated varsity teams.
A pioneer in the desegregation of SEC sports, Wallace earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1970 from Vanderbilt University. In 1975 he graduated from Columbia University’s School of Law. During the administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Wallace served as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice. At the time of this writing, he was a professor of law at the Washington College of Law, American University in Washington, D.C.
Paul Conkin, Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University (1981); Roy M. Neel, Dynamite! 75 Years of Vanderbilt Basketball (1975)