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Perry Wallace, the first black basketball player in SEC, dies on eve of being honored for integrating conference

Fifty years ago, Wallace made his historic debut for Vanderbilt

Perry Wallace, the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, died in Montgomery Hospice Casey House (Rockville, Maryland) on Friday at age 69.

The trailblazing post player at Vanderbilt was set to be honored on Saturday with the Michael L. Slive Dostinguished Service Award at the SEC football championship in Atlanta.

Wallace is survived by his wife, Karen Smyley, and daughter, Gabrielle. His wife said Wallace will be cremated and buried in Nashville with a service several weeks off.

“The family greatly appreciates the outpouring of love for Perry,” said family spokesman Andrew Maraniss. “He was a larger than life figure in so many ways with an influence that spanned generations, but his greatest pride was as a father and husband.”

Maraniss, the New York Times best-selling author of Strong Inside, which details the untold stories about Wallace integrating the SEC, did a podcast with Vanderbilt’s chancellor about Wallace and the long-standing impact of his decision to play for the Commodores.

Wallace, a North Nashville native, liked the wailing horn of Louis Armstrong and became a trumpet-playing band member at Pearl High School in Tennessee.

When basketball coach Cornelius Ridley heard the 6-foot-5, 212-pound sophomore playing one day, he immediately began working to persuade Wallace to join the school’s basketball team.

Wallace’s father, a bricklayer, and mother had spent $200 on that instrument and were none too keen on their son dropping music to pursue the sport. But the payoff for him joining the basketball team was immediate.

Two years later, Wallace would not only lead Pearl High School as the first “colored” team to win the Tennessee state basketball championship in March 1966, he would also become the first African-American to receive a Southeastern Conference basketball scholarship, signing his grant-in-aid on May 3, 1966.

“In the first analysis, I thought a lot about becoming the first Negro boy in the SEC,” he told the Baltimore Afro-American on May 7, 1966. “But coach Roy Skinner is a very sincere person and the fellows of the Vanderbilt team are the nicest I met during all of my trips. I’m willing to work hard and give it a try with these kind of people.”

On March 29, 1966, Wallace toured Vanderbilt and Skinner showed him around the engineering school, dormitories and campus.

“He wants to go into engineering, either electrical or chemical,” Skinner told United Press International. “He has good enough grades, so he won’t have any trouble getting in anywhere.

“Wallace jumps well enough and is strong enough to play either forward or center for any school in the country.”

Wallace selected Vanderbilt, even though, he explained to the Afro-American, Kentucky, Tennessee and close to 80 other schools had also pursued him.

The use of scare tactics by the other programs ultimately backfired.

“Well, it’s part of the recruiting for these schools to find out if you have a preference and then use some angle to discourage you from going to that particular school,” he told the Chicago Defender on May 7, 1966.

“And, the main thing they would hit in my case was the fact that there were no other Negroes playing in the SEC.”

As it would work out, Wallace wouldn’t be the only black player in the SEC. He wouldn’t even be the only black player on his team as Detroit’s Visitation High School’s Godfrey Dillard joined Wallace on Vanderbilt’s 1967 freshman team.

Dillard picked the Commodores over Syracuse, Cornell, Oklahoma and Nebraska, he told the New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, Virginia).

“Everyone has treated Perry and me wonderfully,” he said. “I haven’t encountered any racial prejudice since I arrived on campus in September.

“I sat down with my mother, older brother and a few trusted friends. I decided that going to Vanderbilt and being one of the first of my race to play basketball there was a challenge I couldn’t pass up.”

On Dec. 2, 1967, Wallace ended up being the only one of the two to appear in Vanderbilt’s season-opening, 88-84 victory at SMU, which made him the first black varsity basketball player in the conference. That also made the SEC the last of the major conferences to integrate.

Two days later, the forward made his Memorial Gymnasium debut in a 78-65 win over Auburn. He was the Commodores’ second-leading scorer with 14 points behind Tom Hagan’s 28.

Dillard’s absence from that game and the 1967-68 season has often been attributed to injury, but Vanderbilt expanded on the reason he never ended up playing for the Commodores’ varsity unit.

“It is widely believed that Dillard, who did not play in that historic game, did not make the varsity team because of his aggressive style of play and political activism on campus — he founded the Afro-American Student Association and was a vocal advocate for his fellow African-American students,” Princine Lewis wrote on Vanderbilt’s website. “Dillard had been a leading scorer as a freshman and had recovered from a knee injury, but was told he would join what was then called the ‘B’ team, which did not get playing time. Because of this, Dillard left Vanderbilt.”

Dillard told a story to the New Journal and Guide about his self-introduction to his fellow students when he first arrived on campus. He essentially told his dormitory mates that if they would not say hello to him when they saw him, then they were not truly friends.

“I’m colored and you’re white,” he started, “if I’m walking down the street in Mississippi and you can’t say hello to me, I don’t really consider you my friend.

“If you can’t say hello to me no matter where we are, you aren’t my friend.”

Of the group he spoke to, he reported that only one person would not speak to him in such a situation.

Dillard would return to his home state and graduate from Eastern Michigan with his bachelor’s degree. He earned a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and his law degree from the University of Michigan. Dillard worked during the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations in the Foreign Service.

Similarly, Wallace would go on to obtain his law degree from Columbia University after his graduation from Vanderbilt and would work in the Justice Department. He was appointed to the Environmental Policy Advisory Council of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, became a professor at Howard University and the University of Baltimore and eventually settled down at American University’s Washington College of Law in 1993, teaching environmental law, corporate law and finance.

Wallace was named to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, his No. 25 was retired in 2004, and Wallace was inducted into Vanderbilt’s inaugural sports hall of fame class in 2011.

Wallace’s family will accept the Michael L. Slive Distinguished Service Award on Saturday. Dillard will be honored along with Nate Northington and the three other University of Kentucky players who integrated SEC football.

Integration by the major conferences:

  1. Pacific Coast Conference (Pac-12): Ralph Bunche, UCLA, 1925
  2. Big Ten: Richard “Dick” Culberson, Iowa, 1945
  3. Big 7 (Big 12): LaVannes C. Squires, Kansas, 1951/Gene Wilson, Kansas State, 1951
  4. ACC: Billy Jones, Maryland, 1965
  5. Southwestern Conference (defunct): James Cash, TCU, 1966
  6. SEC: Perry Wallace, Vanderbilt, 1967

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.