He was the Jackie Robinson of the Southeastern Conference, the first African American basketball player in the SEC and the first black varsity athlete to play a full season in any sport in the league that spans the former states of the Confederacy.
But Perry Wallace was far more than just a trailblazing basketball player at Vanderbilt University.
Before even arriving at Vanderbilt, Wallace had made plenty of history on the basketball court. His Pearl High School Tigers won three straight Tennessee high school basketball championships, including the first integrated state tournament in state history to complete an undefeated senior season. And he made his mark off the court as well, earning valedictorian honors at Pearl and choosing Vanderbilt as much for the strength of the school’s engineering department as anything.
Wallace’s life story tracks with many of the major moments in the civil rights movement. He started elementary school in 1954, the year of Brown v. Board. He was a youngster when Emmett Till was murdered, a moment that had a profound impact on his young mind. In 1960, as a 12-year old, Wallace would walk to downtown Nashville to watch the lunchcounter sit-ins with his own eyes. Three years later, in the late summer of 1963, he entered Pearl High a week after Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. During his days at Pearl, he saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He could feel the country changing, and he knew he needed to be prepared to take advantage of these new opportunities.
Integrating the SEC turned out to be a more dangerous and difficult task than he ever imagined, but Wallace persisted in the face of social isolation on the Vanderbilt campus and hostile bigotry on the basketball courts of the small college towns of the South.
After graduating from Columbia University Law School and serving as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, today Wallace is a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law.
Perry Wallace is a sports and civil rights hero, and this is his remarkable story.