Legacy of Courage
Perry Wallace was among the university’s first African American students.
He grew up in North Nashville and was recruited to play basketball for the Vanderbilt Commodores in 1966 by legendary coach Roy Skinner – with the support of then-Chancellor Alexander Heard. Skinner recruited a second African American player for the Commodores that year – a young man from Detroit, Godfrey Dillard.
Mr. Wallace and Mr. Dillard joined a small group of African American students at Vanderbilt who encountered varying degrees of racism because of the prevailing thought of the time – that African Americans should have a separate but “equal” existence, which meant they had no place at an institution like Vanderbilt, including on the same basketball court as white students.
Mr. Wallace and Mr. Dillard, as members of the freshman basketball team, also faced hatred and abuse on the road from fans throughout the South.
The two of them had made history as Vanderbilt’s and the Southeastern Conference’s first African American basketball players, but a knee injury suffered by Mr. Dillard would see Mr. Wallace make history at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym in December 1967, as the first African American scholarship athlete to play varsity basketball in the SEC.
Vanderbilt is marking the 50th anniversary of that historic basketball season and recognizing the legacies of Mr. Wallace and Mr. Dillard with a series of activities and events this academic year. For the second year in a row, the New York Times best-selling biography of Mr. Wallace, Strong Inside by Andrew Maraniss, BA ’92, was selected as the Commons Reading on The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, Vanderbilt’s first-year residential community. Strong Inside has also been adapted into a young adult book of the same name. The university has also commissioned a documentary film, Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace, which premiered on campus Dec. 4. Together, Mr. Wallace and Mr. Dillard forever changed Vanderbilt, the SEC and our nation.
Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos issued the following statement on the passing of Perry Wallace, Vanderbilt alumnus and the first African-American to play varsity basketball in the Southeastern Conference (SEC):
“Vanderbilt, the sports world, and the entire country lost a civil rights icon today. We are deeply saddened by the passing of Perry Wallace, who through quiet strength and courage blazed a trail that still serves as a lesson in resilience and perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles. We are more fortunate for having known him and for his legacy at Vanderbilt. While his passing sadly comes just as we come together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Perry’s groundbreaking achievement, his legacy will live on. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.”
Statement from David Williams, Vanderbilt vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletics director, added:
“The information we received today informing us of the passing of our friend and fellow Commodore Perry Wallace has saddened us all. Perry Wallace stood for all that’s good in each of us. I had the good fortune to visit Perry a week ago and while he clearly knew his time was limited his spirits were high and he expressed his love and appreciation for this great university. I say to everyone associated with Vanderbilt, Perry gave us so much more than we ever gave him. My brother Rest In Peace.”