Nearly 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Wallace stepped onto the Vanderbilt campus and was jolted by what he encountered. He had one black teammate, Godfrey Dillard, on Vanderbilt’s freshman team, but he spent the next three years on the varsity team without one.
His white teammates and coaches did not understand how isolated he was, and he felt betrayed by those who had recruited him.
“The entrance of your first black athlete involved deception,” he told the school’s human relations council in remarks in 1968 that were first published in “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South” (2014), by Andrew Maraniss. During his recruitment, he said, he was lied to about the extent of racism on the campus and the sort of social life he would have as one of the few blacks enrolled there.
One teammate, he said, suggested that Wallace would have “enjoyed the old slave-breeding camps” and asked him about picking cotton. “My first year here involved a battle with my teammates to defeat their knowing and unknowing attempts to categorize me as the ‘team nigger,’ ” he added.
Wallace dreaded the thought of playing in Mississippi, with its poor civil rights record. But in early 1967, the Commodores flew to Starkville to play Mississippi State. Wallace and Dillard, his freshman teammate, were inundated with racial epithets and threats of lynching, mainly by Mississippi State football players.
“Not that high-class bigotry is worthy of praise,” Wallace said in “Strong Inside,” “but these guys at Mississippi State were just low-class, crude, ignorant rednecks. And they were screaming and hollering and insulting us, calling us names, saying they were going to kill us, and, as the game started, it got worse.”
As time ran out in the first half, Wallace heaved the ball downcourt. And many in the crowd shouted, “Shooooot,” using the racial epithet.
Vanderbilt lost the game, 84-70, but Wallace scored 13 points and led both teams with 19 rebounds. His and Dillard’s ordeal was not over, though. They were abused as they sat in the bleachers to watch Vanderbilt’s varsity play.
More than a year later,…