As the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, Perry Wallace’s story of helping to integrate the south in the 1960’s is not all that widely known. Wallace enrolled at Vanderbilt University in 1966, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
In his New York Times bestselling book, “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South,” author Andrew Maraniss sought to give Wallace his due. The book was the recipient of the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award and the lone Special Recognition honor at the 2015 RFK Book Awards.
Maraniss will appear at Carmichael’s Bookstore this week. He spoke with me about Wallace’s trailblazing story. You can listen to our conversation in the audio player above.
On Wallace’s fears about desegregating the SEC:
“His greatest fear was that he would be shot and killed, either around one of the small southern towns of the SEC before or after a game or actually out on the court during a basketball game. It took tremendous courage for a kid who’s 18-or 19-years-old to desegregate this deep south league in the late 1960’s.”
On Vanderbilt’s lack of support for Vanderbilt:
“He never had his coach Roy Skinner or teammates say before a trip to Oxford, Mississippi or Starkville ‘this is going to be really difficult for our teammate and we need to have his back.’ Perry will go to great lengths to say his teammates and coaches were good, decent people who never went out of their way to be difficult to him, but they also never really seemed to understand just how precarious this situation was for Perry.”
On why Wallace chose to go to college in the south:
“His whole goal as a high school player was to earn a scholarship up north to get out of the deep south and out of Jim Crow-Nashville, out of segregation. But on a lot of these recruiting trips to some of these Big Ten schools, he was told ‘Don’t worry about the classes, you know, we’ll find the easiest classes for you,’ or ‘You really don’t have to go to class, you’re just here to play basketball.’
“And even though Perry’s an engineer, I often call him a poet because his response to that sort of mindset was that he was not going to ‘trade one plantation for another.’ That’s the phrase that Perry uses. He wasn’t going to trade segregation of Nashville for being exploited as an athlete on one of these other colleges campuses. So really despite the fact that he would be a pioneer — not because of it — he chooses Vanderbilt because he knew that he would get a real education.”
Author Andrew Maraniss will sign copies of his book “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South” at Carmichael’s Bookstore (2720 Frankfort Avenue) on Thursday at 7 p.m. More information is available here.