Bob Warren arrived at Professor Perry Wallace’s office at American University in 2006, and delivered a message nearly 40 years in the making.
“Forgive me, Perry,” Warren said, “There is so much more I could have done.”
The former basketball teammates at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., hadn’t seen each other since 1968, when Warren was a senior and Wallace, a sophomore, was the first and only African-American ballplayer in the entire Southeastern Conference.
Wallace’s mind raced back to the days that nearly destroyed him, but he also thought of the healing and reconciliation that had come later, and he believed that it wasn’t the “good, decent and humble guys like Bob Warren” who needed to go on living with that sort of regret, anyway.
“We are fine,” Wallace assured Warren. “Don’t think another thing of it. We were all just kids.”
Today, 46 years after Perry Wallace became the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, and the first black scholarship athlete to play a full SEC season in any sport, it’s nearly impossible to fathom an SEC without black stars. But for there to be a Shaquille O’Neal at LSU, a Charles Barkley at Auburn, a Dominique Wilkins at Georgia, — for their even to be a Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Emmitt Smith or Cam Newton — there had to be Perry Wallace, a man who quietly broke barriers in the southern sanctuary of sport.
Buses, movie theaters, lunch counters, schools and many city and state governments were all desegregated before the most hallowed of grounds, the athletic fields of the former states of the Confederacy. Steve Martin, a walk-on baseball player at Tulane during the Green Wave’s final year as a member of the SEC, was actually the first African-American student-athlete in the league, followed by Nat Northington, a football player at Kentucky who played in four varsity games before transferring. So it was Wallace, the valedictorian of his high school class and an engineering double-major at Vanderbilt, who became the first African-American to complete a full season and career as a varsity athlete in the SEC. And nothing about the experience was easy.
On road trips through the Deep South, he was the target of the vilest of catcalls. Back home in Nashville, his parents received letters threatening to kill or castrate their son. On campus, he was ignored by many of the same white students who cheered his prowess on the basketball court. Many of his black neighbors and peers criticized him for attending a white university. The pioneering experience was relentlessly difficult; Henry Harris, the first black basketball player at Auburn, later committed suicide, and Wallace said it took years before he was able to come to terms with his own ordeal.
After decades of distance, there is now a deep and powerful relationship between Vanderbilt and its trailblazing alum. Athletic Director David Williams calls Wallace a “hero,” and he was instrumental in retiring Wallace’s jersey and inducting him — in the inaugural class — into the university’s athletic hall of fame. Wallace, a professor at the American University law school in Washington, D.C., frequently travels to Nashville to speak to Vanderbilt students, served as the voiceover talent for a season ticket campaign, and sits on the school’s athletic advisory committee. He speaks French, sings opera, practices law, has testified before the United Nations, and is a proud husband and father. Though he’s not sure he’d do it all over again if he had the chance, he knows he’s left a powerful if underappreciated legacy, both in sports and society. When fans gaze upon his jersey hanging above the student section at Memorial Gymnasium, he hopes that they will appreciate his contributions not only “as bearing on equality in sports, but, as with Jackie Robinson, extending out to contribute to progress in larger ways.” Looking for a role model in the world of sports? Look no further than Perry Wallace.
—By Andrew Maraniss
Maraniss has spent the last eight years researching and writing a biography of Perry Wallace. The book, "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South" will be published by Vanderbilt University Press, with a publication date of November 2014. For more information or to be added to an e-mail list for updates on the title, exact publication date and author appearances, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.