Each year Vanderbilt selects a book for all incoming first-year students to read during the summer before arriving on campus. This year’s selection is Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss, BA’92. The book charts Wallace’s early life as a basketball star in segregated Nashville through his standout career at Vanderbilt as the first black scholarship athlete to play in the Southeastern Conference. Here we present an excerpt adapted from Strong Inside, which is currently being made into a documentary film and a children’s book.
Any recruiter interested in Perry Wallace wouldn’t just have to go through his parents; they’d have to deal with Pearl High School coach Cornelius Ridley, too.
Every day, it seemed, came the long-distance calls to Ridley’s office, another coach from another school inquiring about Perry’s intentions. The calls didn’t stop when Ridley went home: They came when he was trying to eat dinner, they came when he was trying to watch TV, they came when he was headed to bed, and they came when he was asleep, as late as midnight on some nights. And it wasn’t just phone calls. Folks Ridley saw around town, salesmen stopping by the school, everybody was putting in a good word for their alma mater. And most of all, it was as if another dump truck full of letters arrived at Ridley’s office each afternoon.
From the time Perry first began to understand that he might be able to earn a college basketball scholarship (he had been offered a scholarship by Loyola coach George Ireland as a 10th grader when the coach mistakenly thought he was a senior), he told his coach exactly what he was looking for.
“I told him I loved the game, and what I wanted to do was to get a scholarship to a good university,” Wallace recalled. “He would let me know who all was interested and give whatever insights he could on how to talk to these recruiters and how to do it so that it didn’t disrupt our season.” All through the process, Ridley repeated a simple phrase to his young star. “Make the right choice,” he implored Perry. “Make the right choice.”
Initially, Wallace was certain that the right choice would mean leaving the stifling segregation of the South. A basketball scholarship would provide the opportunity to realize a dream. From the time he started reading magazines his mother brought home from work, Wallace had dedicated his life not only to preparing for the future but to getting out of Nashville.
“You had this feeling that you could be part of the larger world if you were in the North. The image was that you would have more opportunities and not the harsh prejudices,” Wallace recalled. “I saw myself moving up north, moving into the American middle class, getting a job maybe as an engineer, living in an integrated setting with a nice house and a nice family. I didn’t throw in the dog, but it was the whole American Dream. I had been dreaming at a distance, through magazines and television, and here was my opportunity to make it come true.”
When letters arrived from Big Ten universities in the Midwest—schools such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern and Purdue—Wallace took notice. He would begin taking trips to visit some of the schools during the basketball season, others as soon as it ended. These were the first airplane flights of his life—heady stuff for a teenager, being flown all over the country and treated like the most important person in the world. On his recruiting visit to Iowa, Wallace arrived at the airport along with another basketball recruit and a football player. There to greet the trio was a marching band, which promptly whisked them away on a parade through Iowa City, culminating with a photo op with the governor.
In some respects, Perry was thoroughly enjoying the recruiting process. He was experiencing new things, seeing new parts of the country. But he also began to pick up on the unsavory side of the recruiting game, a process that was just as dirty in 1966—perhaps more so—as it would be nearly a half-century later. The enticements that would be quite attractive to the typical wide-eyed recruit were wasted on Wallace.
“He was being courted by all these places, and the people were gracious. A little more than gracious,” his high school girlfriend Jackie Akins recalled. “They were trying to show him a very good time—the whole wine, women and song thing—and that just wasn’t who he was. It was a wasted effort, because they had misjudged him. He was an athlete, but he was also a genuine intellectual, and I think it was hard for folks to understand that there were two sides to him. The people who saw him as just a jock didn’t get him in a fundamental sort of way.”
There was the cash—sometimes a promise of money if he signed with the school, sometimes a straight-out roll of two or three hundred dollars to “tide him over” for the weekend. There were even bigger inducements—“Here’s a car; you ride around in it,” he was told—and there were promises of bigger, better cars upon his arrival, maybe even a nice townhouse to live in.
“All of that was great; it was just that they had the wrong guy,” Wallace recalled. “I really didn’t care about that stuff. I had no interest in that, and it really turned me off to the places that tried to make a deal with me, either indirectly or outright. It seemed to me that there were a lot of good possibilities in life just by playing by the rules.”
In their recruiting pitches, many coaches would throw in a bit of negative talk about schools in the South that were showing interest in Wallace, stressing the hardships he’d surely endure playing in Dixie while extolling the virtues of their more tolerant environs. It wasn’t a point Wallace needed to be sold on; his whole goal was to get out of the South. The problem was, as great as that urge remained, it wasn’t enough to blind him to the lives he saw many of the black student-athletes living on Northern campuses.
He wasn’t going to trade one plantation for another.
Wallace approached each recruiting trip with a skeptical eye, eager to learn as much as he could about the daily routines of the athletes, especially the black ones. Did they go to class? Were they encouraged to take meaningful courses, or were they mostly physical education majors, doing just enough to remain eligible? The deeper he looked, the less he liked what he saw from the athletic factories up north, even at schools with strong academic reputations. As he saw it, the big, strong, talented black athletes—many nearly illiterate—were being asked to produce on the athletic fields and then retreat to their dorms until called upon again. It was pure exploitation.
“What I saw was that at a lot of these places, the black athletes weren’t necessarily getting the best education. Too many of them were not integrated into the life of the university, and too many of them were not pursuing serious academics. That rattled me. It scared me,” Wallace recalled. “I’d talk to players, and it was obvious they weren’t getting a chance to think and develop socially and to take advantage of a great university and a rich social environment. My attitude was, ‘Wait a minute—what else is left? You’re getting great basketball, but you’re not doing great academics, and you’re not really integrating and participating in this microcosm of American society, so why should I go there?’”
It was a mature—and disheartening—realization, but it opened the door for a school that was one of the most unlikely destinations of all for a black kid from Nashville’s Short 26th Street: Vanderbilt University.
An Unlikely Integrationist
When Coach Roy Skinner climbed the 24 cement steps outside Kirkland Hall on his way to Chancellor Alexander Heard’s office sometime in late 1963 or early 1964, he knew the conversation was going to have enormous ramifications for his basketball program and would send an unmistakable signal throughout the country that Vanderbilt was serious about basketball. It wasn’t every day that he was invited to the chancellor’s office; in fact, this was the first time. Yes, Skinner thought, the conversation was going to be important: He and the new chancellor would be talking about the merits of expanding the capacity of Memorial Gym to accommodate the growing demand for tickets. Even Heard, so leery of the public’s insatiable appetite for college athletics, had a soft spot for Commodore basketball.
The chancellor and the coach discussed plans to add balconies to the north end of the gym, and then, almost casually, Heard floated an idea by his Kentucky-born coach.
“He told me that Vanderbilt was open to blacks,” Skinner recalled more than 40 years later, “and he told me that I could recruit a black player and, in fact, that he would like for me to.”
In his trademark low-key way, Skinner’s reaction proved that changing the course of history need not require a particularly confrontational first act. When challenged to do something that had never been done before in a conference whose member institutions spanned the former states of the Confederacy, he didn’t come up with excuses, he didn’t threaten to quit, and he didn’t appeal to an influential alum to try to change the chancellor’s mind.
He simply said OK.
Skinner was an unlikely integrationist, a salt-of-the-earth, chain-smoking, beer-drinking Kentucky farm boy, only about a decade removed from running a Virginia youth center and coaching a high school tennis team, a man who had never played alongside or coached a black player at any level.
For all those reasons, Skinner was the most unlikely of trailblazers. But in another respect, it made all the sense in the world. He was chasing the No. 1 spot, willing to do whatever it took to knock his home-state Wildcats from their perpetual perch atop the SEC. While [Kentucky Head Coach Adolph] Rupp may have had no interest in breaking the league’s color line, there was more motivation for an underdog to shake up the status quo.
“I didn’t care what color they were if they could win,” Skinner recalled. “That’s the name of the game.”
In the immediate aftermath of Heard’s invitation, Skinner tried to recruit a few black players but found no success. Decades later he attributed his early failures to two factors: He said he had a hard time finding Southern blacks with the necessary high school coursework and an even harder time convincing blacks from the North to come down to Nashville to integrate the SEC.
No doubt it was a tough sell, one that for many prospects might have been compounded by Skinner’s legendary low-key recruiting style. While coaches at many other schools, including some of those in pursuit of Perry Wallace, led their pitches with promises of cash or other inducements, Skinner’s approach was plain vanilla. His style was so laid-back it left some would-be Commodores feeling somewhere between sympathetic and dumbstruck.
Vanderbilt Comes into Focus
Growing up, Perry Wallace had never thought much about Vanderbilt University. He wouldn’t be welcome there as a student, and as a basketball fan he was far more interested in the teams at Pearl and Tennessee A&I than in the Commodores. But as the choice of a college became an important consideration, Vanderbilt entered the picture.
First, the university began admitting blacks, including a friend from Wallace’s neighborhood named Moses Taylor. Then, as Wallace began to earn notice on the court and in the classroom, folks from Vanderbilt started to show up at the Pearl High gym.
By the time Roy Skinner arrived at the Wallace home to pay a visit in the midst of what remained an undefeated season for Pearl, Perry had winnowed offers from more than 100 schools down to a handful. He’d even turned down a scholarship offer from UCLA, a program in the early stages of its historic run of 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, because he felt he would have trouble earning significant playing time as a Bruin. And here was Skinner, knocking on the door on 10th Avenue, about to try to convince Wallace to integrate the Southeastern Conference, a kid smart enough to see what was going on at the basketball factories up north and grounded enough to know he wasn’t quite good enough to play at UCLA. It should have been a tough sell.
But from the moment Skinner walked in the door, there was something all the Wallaces liked about the man. His reserved, country style fit in quite well in this home.
“My parents knew people, and they knew life,” Wallace told author Frye Gaillard [BA’68] years later. “And they had a feeling about Coach Skinner. When he came over that day and sat down in our house, he had a certain manner about him, a certain honesty and decency, a rhythm and a style that seemed easygoing. My parents, of course, were looking at him hard. They were asking themselves, ‘Who is this man who wants to take our son into dangerous territory?’”
Perry was listening to the coach through ears as skeptical as those of his parents. He heard something, however, that meant a lot back in 1966 and led him to take a closer look at Vanderbilt. When Skinner talked to his parents, he addressed them not by their first names, as would have been the convention of the day for a white man addressing blacks, but rather as Mr. and Mrs. Wallace. For Perry, eager for his aging parents to be treated with respect and looking for signals on how this Southern white coach might treat a black player, Skinner’s choice of words spoke volumes.
“Coach Skinner treated me and my parents in a way that a lot of people back then would not have,” Wallace recalled. “When he called my parents Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, that was a very, very big deal. For them, born in 1906 on farms in Rutherford County, Tennessee, and traveling along that whole rough, difficult path in the South, how often are they going to be called Mr. and Mrs. Wallace? And this is not the big-eyed, dumb, naïve person’s reaction to that; this is the ‘I know people and I don’t expect them to be perfect, but this is sincere enough to work with’ version. At that point, along with the comparison to those other schools that were recruiting me, I began to take Vanderbilt seriously.”
For his part, Skinner’s demeanor with the Wallaces was genuine; he was the same man in their home as he was in the company of any white family, a fact that was significant in its own right in 1966 Nashville. “I just called all parents Mr. and Mrs.,” he recalled, “especially since most of them were older than I was.”
Even as the Pearl basketball season rolled along, Wallace attended games at Memorial Gym, spending time with the Commodore players to get a better sense of his potential future teammates and the lives they lived on campus. He was impressed by what he saw. Here was a place that offered the best of both worlds: big-time basketball and first-rate academics. There was no P.E. major at Vanderbilt, and the players appeared to take their schoolwork seriously. Vanderbilt’s engineering school had a fine reputation, a fact that also remained one of Purdue University’s biggest selling points for Wallace. There was little talk of the social life on campus, but Wallace wasn’t much of a partier anyway.
Everything about Vanderbilt was turning out to be appealing, except for one thing: Perry Wallace did not want to be the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. He had absolutely no interest in being a pioneer. If progress was going to happen, that was great, but not on his back.
What kind of masochist would choose to step into the fire alone? With numbers came strength. There had been dozens of students at the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, thousands at the March on Washington, and millions watching it all on television. But to desegregate the SEC meant going it alone in backwater Southern towns like Starkville, Mississippi, and Auburn, Alabama, a teenage black male sweeping through the South like a magnet, attracting all the scattered hatred left behind by the tumultuous events of the mid-1960s.
As Wallace began to think deeply about whether this was a mission he wanted to accept, pressure mounted from all sides. His decision was entering the public realm; everyone in Nashville, it seemed, had a stake in where Perry Wallace decided to attend college. What made a difficult calculation even more complex were the mixed messages he received from both blacks and whites. Members of both camps urged him to make history at Vanderbilt while others from both sides were equally adamant he go elsewhere.
The socially progressive Vanderbilt alumni Wallace encountered expressed hope that he would break the color line at their school. Many blacks who believed in the promise of integration and the “progress of the race” were also eager to see Wallace choose Vanderbilt. Positive as they were, these messages were accompanied by a corresponding pressure: the obligation to live up to high expectations.
And then there was the hate.
Perry Sr. and Hattie did their best to hide the mail that arrived at their home, and indeed their son didn’t see most of the letters until years later. But some did slip past his parents’ protective eyes—handwritten notes threatening Wallace’s life if he made the choice to attend Vanderbilt.
Throughout the winter and early spring of 1966, Perry Wallace had a lot on his mind. So many people with opinions, so many big questions for a teenager to answer, so much pressure to make a decision. His parents thought it was time he quit taking so many recruiting trips; he’d get to do more traveling once he started playing. “It’s beginning to be clear what you want to do,” Perry Sr. told him. “You should go ahead and make your choice.”
High school coaches, teammates, friends, college recruiters, sportswriters—everyone had an opinion, but this was a decision Perry wanted to make on his own. Those other people weren’t going to have to live with the consequences. Before he decided where to spend the next four years of his life, he knew exactly where he needed to spend the next hour: down in a clearing among the cliffs and trees by White City Park.
For years Perry had worked to strengthen his legs and his stamina by jogging around the neighborhood, winding his way up and down the same steep hills he had sped down on makeshift wagons as a kid. During one of these jogs, he discovered a hidden thicket of trees and rocks about 50 yards off to the side of 9th Avenue as the road meandered toward the Cumberland River. When he was stressed out by school, by racial tensions, by the everyday troubles of a teenager, this is where he came to sit and think in peace.
Surrounded by nature in the heart of the city, he felt far from the troubling and hurried aspects of the world, closer to the rhythms of the country, closer to his grandfather’s farm in Rutherford County. But, even beyond that, when he sat atop a rock in the clearing, he felt transported to a “mystical place,” no longer confined to North Nashville, but ascended to one of the magical places he was reading about in poetry class, “somewhere like Xanadu.”
“And this,” he said during a tour of his old neighborhood more than 40 years later, looking at the very spot, “is where I went to do my last thinking about whether I would go to Vanderbilt.”
As he sat and meditated among the trees, Wallace allowed the opinions of others to float away, determined to make this critical decision on his own. There was a lot to like about Vanderbilt, but more than anything, he was attracted by the promise. The promise that the world was changing, that the playing field was being leveled, that if you worked hard and played fair and made the right decisions, you could participate in the full measure of society whether you were white or black. With segregation dying, the America in which he’d live the rest of his life would require that he learn to interact with all different kinds of people. His teachers at Pearl High School had prepared him for this moment, and he was ready to seize it.
Still, it was one thing to steel himself for the journey across town, another to ponder road trips to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, going it alone deep in the heart of Dixie. He’d heard over and over again what a special opportunity it would be to become a pioneer in the Southeastern Conference, but what he was beginning to understand better than anyone was how easy it was to talk about such a thing and how difficult it would be to actually live through it.
As he climbed down from the rock and began to run back home, he knew he had just made the decision to attend Vanderbilt University—not because of the fact that he would be a trailblazer, but in spite of it.
Now a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, Perry Wallace was the first African American varsity basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. As a Vanderbilt freshman Wallace led a delegation of African American students to meet with Chancellor Alexander Heard and other administrators to discuss the racial climate on campus.
He continued to engage in constructive dialogue with Heard and others throughout his four years at Vanderbilt, but his words did not always fall on sympathetic ears. One senior athletic department official once asked him why he didn’t just leave if things were so bad. “I have a right to be here like anybody else,” Wallace replied, “and I’m not going to leave Vanderbilt.”
After giving a lengthy interview to The Tennessean the day after his last game, in which he described honestly the social isolation and overt hostility he’d encountered on campus and throughout the SEC, the relationship between Wallace and the university community deteriorated. He was not invited back to campus to speak about his experience and the history he’d made until 1989, nearly 20 years after he graduated.
During the past decade, however, the bond between Vanderbilt and Wallace has been repaired in both symbolic and substantive ways. “Now,” he says, “the relationship is excellent.”
Wallace returned to campus for the Class of 1970’s 45th reunion last October, at which time Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos announced the creation of the Perry Wallace Engineering Scholarship, an endowed scholarship funded mostly by Wallace’s classmates, including fundraising chair Christie Hauck, BA’70. Zeppos has called Wallace a hero, and Wallace told the chancellor to “put [him] to work” on behalf of the university’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
This year Wallace was named a distinguished alumnus of Vanderbilt School of Engineering.
Here we present some highlights from Andrew Maraniss’ recent interview with Wallace:
- My earliest memory of encountering Jim Crow law in Nashville was when I was about 4 years old. My mother and I were taking a bus home from downtown. While she was paying, I went and sat down—right next to an older white man. She quickly gathered me up and whisked me to the back of the bus. As we rode, she explained the rules of the game in the South.
- I’ve talked about being denied my humanity as a student at Vanderbilt. The silent treatment can have a quite serious impact if applied systematically and intensively. It can command you to believe that you are the ultimate nonperson, that you don’t exist for any meaningful human purposes. It can be particularly devastating when such a punishment is inflicted by a dominant, foreign culture and you are an anxious, unsure newcomer.
- That said, one of the special and satisfying things about the experience was that many of us, black and white, forged solid relationships—even friendships—during that time. This was a great victory, for each of us personally and for the larger community. I have always said that we created precious cargo in that we developed templates for addressing one of the stiffest challenges of modern times. My regret is that Vanderbilt, in downplaying me and my contributions in the ensuing years, allowed much of that precious cargo to atrophy. The good news, however, is that in recent years we have picked that cargo back up, rehabilitated it, and put it to work in the best interests of the Vanderbilt community.
- Because of the frank public statements I made in my senior year about the nature of college life for blacks on campus, many in the Vanderbilt community were angry and shunned me. This continued for decades until the university began to reach out to me. I was willing to respond in kind.
- I am proud that I served well, helped to change Southern sports forever, and did it with truth and integrity.
- Vanderbilt has reached back to revive its vision and its will on the subjects of diversity and inclusion. Chancellor Zeppos’ focus is the embodiment of this idea. The issue is so difficult because it evokes deep feelings in many people that they are afraid to face: hatred, fear, ignorance about the unknown.
- To make initiatives like this work, it requires honesty in accepting human frailty on the subject. A willingness to approach each other in dialogue with humility and an open heart. A blend of idealism and pragmatism. A sense of humor. Finally, a determination to work tirelessly for progress.
- In the end everyone wins, and not just superficially. The organization is more resilient, creative and sustainable—so long as the other basics of a good organization are present.
- I understand many students are skeptical of the university’s efforts. This skepticism is understandable, normal—and potentially very useful. I would encourage students to engage the chancellor in an organized, constructive, productive and spirited manner. Make it a partnership, and push for change. This is a great way to hold people to their promises. Remember: Freedom isn’t free, and equality isn’t either.