Perry Wallace, who broke down a racial barrier in the Deep South by becoming the first black varsity basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, has died after a battle with cancer.
Wallace, who died Friday at age 69 at a hospice center in Rockville, Maryland, went on to a distinguished career as a law professor. But it was his time on the basketball court as a player for Vanderbilt in the turbulent 1960s that made him a pioneer in race relations.
“Vanderbilt, the sports world and the entire country lost a civil rights icon,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos said in a statement late Friday.
Wallace made history when he played for Vanderbilt in a game against SMU on Dec. 2, 1967, becoming the SEC’s first black basketball player to compete in a varsity game. Two days later, he played in his first SEC varsity game for head coach Roy Skinner against Auburn.
Wallace arrived on the Vanderbilt campus in the fall of 1966 along with Godfrey Dillard, another black basketball player. The two huddled together in the locker room at halftime of a freshman game in Starkville, Mississippi, holding hands and trembling after rival fans spat, yelled slurs and threw things at them on the court.
Like many Southern universities a half-century ago, Vanderbilt had few black students and faculty members. Dillard later transferred, leaving Wallace in the pioneering role on his own.
Wallace routinely suffered indignities while playing for the Commodores.
“There were some rough times, especially when they had to go to Mississippi and places like that, but there was also some rough times for him out there on Vanderbilt’s campus,” Walter Fisher, a former high school teammate, told The Tennessean in 2015.
“But through it all, he said that being bitter can eat you alive. And I thought that was so noble of him, because a lot of the bitterness that he might have had…