Legacy of Courage

Perry Wallace’s strength blazed a trail for Black student-athletes

Perry Wallace
Perry Wallace 1969

The life of Perry Wallace, BE’70, the trailblazing Vanderbilt student-athlete who integrated SEC varsity basketball in 1967, had all the makings of a major motion picture—humble beginnings, great talent, dedication, pain, endurance and finally triumph and reconciliation. Yet, many in the university community didn’t know just how remarkable Wallace’s story was until fellow Vanderbilt alumnus Andrew Maraniss, BA’92, wrote a biography about him.

“It’s as if nobody knew Jackie Robinson’s story,” said Maraniss, whose book Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014) became a New York Times bestseller. “At the time Perry was playing—in the South, in the 1960s—there weren’t a whole lot of people out there promoting his story.”

A standout basketball player and valedictorian at Nashville’s Pearl High School, Wallace was recruited to Vanderbilt by head coach Roy Skinner in 1966. On the freshman team, Wallace and fellow African American player Godfrey Dillard often endured hostile crowds on the road and at home, but Wallace nevertheless achieved great success at Vanderbilt. He became the first African American on an SEC basketball team to play in a varsity game when the Commodores faced Southern Methodist University on Dec. 2, 1967. Two days later, in a game against Auburn, he broke another barrier with his conference debut in Memorial Gym.

Wallace, who graduated in 1970 with a bachelor of engineering, went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University and served as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice before entering academia. He became the first African American tenured law professor at the University of Baltimore, and he was a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law for nearly 30 years.

Vanderbilt has commemorated Wallace’s legacy and impact in numerous ways. In 2017, the year of Wallace’s death, the university recognized the 50th anniversary of the integration of SEC basketball with a series of programming and events for the campus and larger Nashville community. Vanderbilt also commissioned the documentary film Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace, posthumously awarded Wallace the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award and included him among its inaugural 2018 class of Vanderbilt Trailblazers. Additionally, in 2020, the portion of 25th Avenue South in front of Memorial Gym was ceremonially renamed Perry Wallace Way in his honor.

“It’s perfect that 25th Avenue South is named after Perry since he wore number 25,” said Candice Lee, BS’00, MEd’02, EdD’12, vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletic director, during the dedication ceremony. “He changed this city and this university for the better, and we will never forget that.”

Learn more about Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.