Editor’s note: The following is the third and final excerpt from Bill Carey’s new book Chancellors, Commodores, and Coeds: A History of Vanderbilt University. Copies of it can be purchased at many Nashville bookstores or by contacting the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perry Wallace -- Changing the Game
By 1966 Vanderbilt had a handful of black students in its freshman, sophomore and junior classes. But the school’s athletic program was still all white.
It wasn’t that the coaches didn’t want black players. Starting in 1964 head basketball coach Roy Skinner began trying to recruit black athletes from as far away as Michigan and Illinois. He did so with the support of Chancellor Alexander Heard but the expressed displeasure of many fans. “I remember getting petitions against the idea of my recruiting black players with a lot of signatures on them,” said Skinner, Vanderbilt’s head coach from 1961 until 1976. In an era of racial problems in the South, Skinner had a hard time finding a black high school student who would commit to Vanderbilt.
In the winter of 1965 Skinner began scouting a talented player named Perry Wallace Jr. Wallace grew up in the heart of black Nashville, near the corner of Jefferson Street and Twenty-sixth Avenue. As a senior at Pearl High School, Wallace led his undefeated state champion basketball team in scoring and rebounding. He was also the valedictorian of his graduating class.
Wallace was recruited by just about every major university in the country. But the idea of going to Vanderbilt and becoming the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference appealed to him. “I wanted to go to a major university and major in engineering and play big-time basketball,” said Wallace, later a professor at the Washington College of Law at American University. “I had a good feeling about going to Vanderbilt, even though the South was a different place then and I knew that I would be the first black to play there. And I knew that my parents could come across town and see me play and that they would be treated with respect by white people, which I knew would be a huge triumph for them.”
In May 1966 Wallace announced he would come to Vanderbilt. When he started school that fall, he was one of two African-American freshmen recruited to play ball. The other was his roommate, a young man from Detroit, Mich., named Godfrey Dillard.
In those days freshmen were not allowed to play varsity sports, and so Wallace and Dillard didn’t begin playing big-time college basketball until the fall of 1967. As if being the first black player in the conference weren’t enough, the NCAA outlawed dunking that year, making it even tougher for Wallace. “That was the worst thing that ever happened to Perry’s game, because in high school that was the only shot that he could make,” said Skinner.
For the next three seasons Wallace and his white teammates suffered the abuse of opposing fans. “Sometimes, things would get ugly,” Wallace said. “People would yell things, people would taunt me. Sometimes the cheerleaders at the other schools would lead cheers against me. Things were worst at the two Mississippi schools and at Auburn. I was made very aware of the fact that they weren’t used to seeing black players, and that they didn’t like black players.”
Years later Roy Skinner said that Wallace’s poise on the road trips was remarkable. “It was as bad as it could be,” Skinner said. “The crowd made remarks to and about Perry that were ridiculous. I think some of them should have been arrested for some of the things that they were saying. I felt real sorry for Perry for having to go through that.”
Perhaps the most difficult experience for Wallace took place in Oxford, Miss., on February 10, 1968. According to both Skinner and Wallace, some of the fans at that year’s Vandy-Ole Miss game mercilessly taunted Wallace, using racial epithets to distract his concentration and try to turn him against his teammates. On top of that, Wallace perceived that some of the Mississippi players were going out of their way to rough him up. “First I got poked directly in the eye after I got a rebound,” Wallace said. “And then I drove in and someone hit me harder than anyone had ever hit me before. It was like a full body slam.”
The taunting and the rough play backfired. “That was the only time I saw him really get upset,” Skinner said. “And he became a man possessed. He began grabbing every rebound and just controlling the game.” Vandy won, 90-72.
The atmosphere at the games and on campus was too much for Dillard. After suffering a season-ending injury at the beginning of his sophomore year, Dillard tried to come back his junior year but didn’t make the team. Years later Dillard said he didn’t make the team because of things that happened off the court. “By the time I came back, I had gotten involved in a lot of political activity and I was very vocal about the racism that I was encountering on campus,” said Dillard, who later became an attorney. “Athletes weren’t supposed to do that.” Skinner maintained that Dillard was cut because he wasn’t as good a player as he was before his knee injury.
The Vanderbilt basketball team had a disappointing season in 1969-70, fielding its first losing season in twenty years. Senior and team captain Perry Wallace was the bright spot, leading the team in rebounding and scoring.
Wallace also saved his best game for last. On March 7, 1970, Wallace scored twenty-nine points and grabbed twenty-seven rebounds as Vanderbilt defeated Mississippi State in Memorial Gymnasium 78-72. The game was such a triumph for Wallace that he even concluded it with a dunk, an illegal move that the referees inexplicably ignored. The 13,855 Vanderbilt fans were so happy for Wallace that they gave three standing ovations.
What Wallace did the next day angered many people. Only a few hours after his victorious final game the Vanderbilt senior had a long interview with Tennessean reporter Frank Sutherland and spilled his guts about what it had been like to be a black man on the Vanderbilt campus during the previous four years. “I have been a very lonely person at Vanderbilt,” Wallace said. “Things have gotten a lot better over the years, but it has been a lonesome thing.”
In the front-page Tennessean article, Wallace said he appreciated the value of the education he had received at Vanderbilt. But he said that he had been shut out of almost every aspect of social life at the school, from fraternities to area churches to dorm life. “On the dormitory halls I got to know some people but there were others who condescended, people who were used to blacks who cut the grass and who swept floors,” he said. “They respected my basketball ability but they still considered me as a person who sweeps floors -- It sort of ended up there wasn’t a lot to do. I existed as a very lonely person.”
Wallace said that the one place at the school where he had always been treated well was Memorial Gymnasium. “The fans have really been good,” he said. “That was what really impressed me about Vanderbilt. They really stick with you.”
Years later Wallace said that he didn’t regret the things he said in the interview. “If Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett had come east in the old days and told people in the big cities that the west was a wonderful country and that there was no danger and no bad weather and that the natives were friendly, then think what would have happened,” said Wallace. “I know that a lot of people were upset at the time. But I really thought it was my duty to paint an accurate picture of what it was like.”
One person upset about the interview was Coach Roy Skinner. Thirty-two years later, Skinner said he had changed his mind. “When I first read it, I was really surprised and thought that it was a real ugly thing to do because he had been treated so nicely by so many people,” he said. “But it also woke me up. He talked about some things that were going on at the time that I hadn’t really thought about. After it had sunk in, I admired him for it.”
Wallace got his degree in electrical engineering and engineering mathematics, becoming the first African-American athlete to graduate from a school in the Southeastern Conference. By the time he graduated, Auburn had a black basketball player on its varsity team. By the early 1980s some of the schools whose fans had taunted Wallace were cheering for redominantly black teams. “When I see games on television now with so many black players, it is just unbelievable to me,” said Wallace. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since my experience.”