For decades, NCAA basketball has been dominated by African American athletes, igniting excitement through crowds and earning conference honors. At times, it can be difficult to fathom how that was not the case 50 years ago. Players like Vanderbilt standout Perry Wallace had to triumph over arduous racism while being the first African American to play in the Southeastern Conference.
A well-rounded student during his time at Pearl High school in Nashville TN, Perry would help the boys’ basketball team to a state title and an undefeated season. He became valedictorian of his senior class and received around 80 basketball scholarship offers.
Wallace became the first Black athlete to get a basketball scholarship offer from the Southeastern Conference. He, along with Godfrey Dillard would be members of the freshmen team.
Wallace and Dillard endured harsh bouts of racism, especially when traveling to Mississippi. Players from the Mississippi State football team threatened to lynch the two players.
Dillard founded the Afro-American Student Association. Due to his social activist efforts, the school did not allow him on the Varsity team.
On December 2, 1967, Wallace broke the color barrier for the SEC by playing his first varsity game against Southern Methodist; the Commodores would win the game 88-84. Wallace was the second leading scorer in his first home game, scoring 14 points.
African Americans would turn out in significant numbers to see him play, but racist spectators would also attend games. Crowds were repugnant and violent towards him, at times spitting and calling him racial slurs. During a game against Louisiana State University, a knife was thrown on the court.
“It was clearly racist stuff,” Wallace said in an interview with USA Today in 2004. “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.”
During away games spectators would yell threats to him. He also was not accepted by classmates at Vanderbilt. The team and the coach did not offer much emotional support for the tough traumas he endured.
Yet, Wallace went on to play in 78 games, averaging 13 points and 11 rebounds per game and became an All-SEC first team honoree as a senior. He graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in electrical engineering and engineering mathematics in 1970. Wallace earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1975.
During his career, Wallace worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Urban League. Wallace was also a law professor at American and Howard Universities.
In 2003, Wallace was inducted in the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. His No. 25 jersey from high school was retired in 2004. Wallace was also a part of the inaugural Hall of Fame induction class of Vanderbilt in 2008.
Wallace passed away one day shy of the 50th anniversary of his first college varsity game last December. February 19 would have marked his 70th birthday.
The book “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South” by Andrew Maraniss and the documentary “Triumph: The Untold Story of Percy Wallace” also tells about the courage Wallace had to play college basketball.