As a child in segregated Nashville, Perry Wallace's existence was defined by black and white. Where he lived and attended school was all black. He could see the buildings of Vanderbilt University on any given day but never imagined attending. Vanderbilt, like most schools in the South, was part of the white world. But Vanderbilt basketball coach Roy Skinner wanted to blur the line between black and white in the Southeastern Conference. He began recruiting Wallace during his junior year of high school. "Segregation was the law of the land and that meant you didn't work into your plans going to colleges where blacks were not allowed or were discouraged from thinking about going," Wallace said last week. "Since I wanted to go to college on a basketball scholarship, going to Vanderbilt or Tennessee or Florida or any of those places simply was not an option."
Crossing that line would mean entering a world of catcalls, racist taunts and physical abuse.
"When we saw on television different integration events and situations where people were going in to integrate, you'd often have federal troops and you'd have crowds screaming and jeering on the side," said Wallace, 60, now a law professor at American University in Washington. "And so, I just wondered how much of that was going to happen. How would that feel? And how much of that I could survive."
Wallace then asked himself, " … Is this something that I can do that would be good for me but ultimately would be good for other people?''
At 18, he enrolled at Vanderbilt in 1966. On Dec. 2, 1967, he became the first black person to play varsity basketball in the SEC. He altered the face of the league, and the pain and struggle helped shape the course of Wallace's life.
Taking a chance
Skinner had made several previous attempts to recruit black athletes. Vanderbilt, which accepted its first black student in 1953 — nine years before James Meredith was admitted into Mississippi — was a private school with extremely high academic standards. The majority of players who Skinner believed could handle the rigorous academics and play well enough to compete in the SEC were mostly from outside the region. And persuading them to come South was nearly impossible.
"I didn't come close to getting any until Perry came along," Skinner, the school's winningest basketball coach, said during a 2007 interview with the university. "I worked awfully hard on him."
Wallace was a straight-A student, valedictorian of his class and a high school basketball All-American. At 6 feet 5, he could dominate the boards and was a local legend for his dunks. He averaged 12 points and 19 rebounds. Skinner said he practically lived at Wallace's house.
"He made a lot of efforts to recruit me," Wallace said.
Facing the reality
When Wallace arrived on campus, there was neither a mob nor a welcoming committee. Skinner and the university had received petitions from alumni who weren't happy about his recruiting a black player, but as Skinner put it: "I only took that with a grain of salt. There was nothing they could do about it."
The transition was extremely difficult for Wallace.
"People had a lot of stereotypes," he said. "So you had some people who were very fine folks, but most of them just kind of tried to ignore me or pretend that I wasn't there. Then you had a few other people who were just nasty and very menacing."
Wallace's teammates made life tolerable.
"Those guys were decent and that was a tremendous help," he said.
When the Commodores traveled, however, it was a nightmare. Wallace was threatened with beatings, castration and lynching. Cheerleaders led the crowds in derogatory cheers. Opponents battered Wallace physically on the court while officials looked the other way.
"I can't imagine how tough it was for Perry and what he experienced, particularly on the road,'' said C.M. Newton, a former Kentucky player and coach at Alabama and Vanderbilt who was the first coach to recruit a black player (Wendell Hudson) at Alabama in 1969. "I know what it was like. I witnessed it with Wendell. You go to Auburn and have the whole football team sit behind the bench and have to listen to the terrible things they had to say. … Perry was a great student and a great human being, and I think he handled it very well.''
During his first varsity game at Ole Miss, Wallace was punched in the eye and injured going for a rebound. The crowd cheered.
"Both of the Mississippi schools and both of the Alabama schools — those were the worst," Wallace said. "In other places, you still had prejudice, at Louisiana and at the University of Tennessee, those could be bad. But the Mississippi and Alabama schools were the worst.
"These people were mobsters, like Klansmen, and these were people right from that world," he added. "They knew how to destroy a black person. And that's what they tried to do to me. They did what they could to try to induce fear in me and basically make me fail. I had to make sure that I did not succumb to that."
Surviving the pressure
The desire to succeed on and off the court was a heavy burden. The youngest of six children, Wallace didn't want to worry his parents. So he kept things bottled inside. And they tried to shelter him. It wasn't until later he learned about the large amount of hate mail they received.
Among his accomplishments, he was second-team All-SEC his senior season and finished with 1,010 points and 894 rebounds. A three-year letterman, he remains the school's second-leading rebounder.
"There was always a tremendous amount of extra pressure from the time that I set foot on that campus until the day I left," Wallace said. "You're talking about four years of tremendous pressure. Because I was the first, and remember the whole question about racial pioneers is that many people don't believe that you deserve to be there, that you can perform, that you are reliable. And they are very skeptical. It's not fair, but that's what prejudice is all about. That's the environment that I was in."
Learning from adversity
Wallace graduated with a degree in engineering in 1970, having been named team captain his senior season. After his graduation, Alabama, Kentucky, Florida and Georgia opened the 1970-71 season with integrated varsity teams. The integration of high school associations in Alabama and other southern states helped facilitate change, Newton said, but Wallace's role in changing the face of the SEC can't be overlooked.
"I think Perry going to Vanderbilt was really very, very key,'' said Newton, now a consultant to the SEC commissioner for men's basketball. "And I think the way Roy Skinner and the Vanderbilt community handled it all, they deserve a lot of credit.''
Today, Wallace said, he watches the league from afar with "a great sense of pride" in knowing he helped facilitate change.
Wallace earned his law degree at Columbia University. Yet the most enduring lessons came from his experiences on the basketball courts of the SEC.
"What it has basically done for me, as I have struggled to come out on top of it, is that it's made me that proverbial better person," he said. "It has made me a lot more respectful of the quality of human life, respectful of human dignity with people. And it's taught me a lot about struggling to surpass obstacles. That was a hard, tough, painful period. It was difficult. And there was a lot at stake.
"And struggling to overcome and succeed in that experience makes you build a certain amount of inner strength. It also makes you have to learn a lot about people and about life. And it made me a stronger person, a smarter person, about people and about life."