Am I the only one who thought about this? On Thursday night Vanderbilt's men's hoops team meets American University for the first time ever. Perhaps lost on all but a few of us is the fact that, coincidentally, D.C.-based American U. has become the adopted home of one of Vanderbilt's greatest basketball heroes.
His name is Perry Wallace.
Wallace, who wore the black and gold between 1967 and 1970, is today a Professor of Law at American. There, in the nation's capital, law students of every ethnic background gather daily to hear Wallace lecture on the finer points of securities litigation and international law-- blissfully ignorant that their distinguished professor once was to Southeastern Conference basketball what Jackie Robinson was to major league baseball.
As the years pass, there are fewer and fewer of us old-timers who remember when the hardcourts of the SEC were the exclusive domain of the lily-white. Youngsters today, I'm sure, can hardly even envision such a thing. Wallace, I would guess, would be reluctant to talk about his groundbreaking experiences all those years ago. He quietly left his mark, and has moved on to other things.
But a few of us old-timers still remember-- and marvel at his bravery.
Thirty-four years ago, in the heyday of the civil rights movement, Wallace stepped on the court at Memorial Gym as the SEC's first African-American player. Recruited by Roy Skinner as a standout post player out of Nashville's Pearl High School, Wallace first thought of signing with a Big Ten school, where the trails for blacks had already been partially blazed. But as a high school senior in the spring of 1966, the times were a-changin'. Realizing the value of what Vanderbilt had to offer, Wallace decided to cast his lot with Skinner and the Commodores.
Wallace's signing class included another black player, Godfrey Dillard. Freshmen were ineligible back then, so both played solely on the freshman team in the 1966-67 season. However, by the end of his freshman year Dillard had left school, leaving Wallace to go it alone.
In his sophomore year Coach Skinner wisely brought the young Wallace along slowly. I recall Wallace as a 6-foot-5 combination forward/center, raw in his skills, but with good hands, the ability to get up and down the court, and out-of-this-world leaping ability. He backed up Bob Bundy at center, but Bundy was notoriously foul-prone, and Skinner typically brought in Wallace off the bench to spell him.
In those days of segregation, the pressures Wallace faced were enormous. You start with the demands of being a student-athlete, period-- and add the weight of being one of the few African-Americans on a private-school campus that in the late 1960's was still 99% white. To my recollection, the Memorial Gym crowd always embraced him warmly. But when the basketball team ventured on the road, it was a different story.
Not to take away anything from Jackie Robinson-- but Robinson never played a major-league game south of the Mason-Dixon line. Robinson never had to play in Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi, during times when racial tensions were white-hot.
When the Commodores played at Oxford, Miss., the catcalls, threats and racial epithets were so loud, they were audible over the radio broadcast. At Tennessee's Stokely Athletic Center a group of opposing fans near the baseline threatened lynching, shouting "We gonna string you up, boy!" It was like that on most every road trip.
Realizing the importance of his role as pioneer, Wallace, much like Robinson, remained mutely focused and let his play on the court do the talking. He handled the challenge with great dignity. He quietly developed into one of the conference's best post players-- his senior year he drew second-team All-SEC accolades, averaging 18 points and 14 rebounds per game.
In his final home game at Vandy, Wallace put up 29 points against Mississippi State, one of the most memorable and touching Senior Days in Vandy history. After all these years, he's still the school's second all-time leading rebounder behind Clyde Lee. He ultimately earned the respect of his fellow students at Vandy, who in his senior year voted him Bachelor of Ugliness, the school's highest honor.
After graduation Wallace was drafted by Philadelphia, but he never made it to the NBA. He worked for the National Urban League under future Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, and obtained a law degree from Columbia University in 1975. He spent six years in the U.S. Justice Department. Today, in addition to teaching at the university, he works as a mediator in securities cases.
For some reason Vanderbilt has never quite recognized the important place that Wallace holds in the school's basketball history-- for that matter, in SEC history. Wallace's passage paved the way for black players at other SEC schools-- by the late 1970's, the league was dominated by African-Americans.
A few years ago Jackie Robinson was posthumously honored for his contributions to major league baseball, and his number retired-- not just by the Dodgers, but by all major-league teams. Today I know for sure that Vanderbilt prides itself in being the school that broke the SEC basketball color barrier-- and I just hope that Vanderbilt won't wait until Wallace is dead to recognize the significance of what he did.
It's been widely rumored that Vanderbilt might soon be the SEC school to break another color barrier-- the one for football coaches. In 69 years of existence, the SEC has still never had a black head football coach [Ed. note: Mississippi State hired Sylvester Croom as head coach last December, the league's first African-American]. (One national writer suggested Vanderbilt should take the plunge, because Vandy has less of a "grits and gravy" fan base than some other SEC schools. Hmmph-- I guess we can take that as a compliment.)
I don't know at this point whether that will come to pass or not. But I do know that the SEC's first African-American football coach, whenever he arrives, won't have it nearly as tough as Perry Wallace did in the late 1960's.
And for that, said coach will have a venerable, gray-haired professor at American University-- among others-- to thank.
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