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Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South

Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South

by Andrew Maraniss


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New York Times Best Seller
2015 RFK Book Awards Special Recognition
2015 Lillian Smith Book Award
2015 AAUP Books Committee "Outstanding" Title

Based on more than eighty interviews, this fast-paced, richly detailed biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the SEC, digs deep beneath the surface to reveal a more complicated and profound story of sports pioneering than we've come to expect from the genre. Perry Wallace's unusually insightful and honest introspection reveals his inner thoughts throughout his journey.

Wallace entered kindergarten the year that Brown v. Board of Education upended "separate but equal." As a 12-year-old, he sneaked downtown to watch the sit-ins at Nashville's lunch counters. A week after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Wallace entered high school, and later saw the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. On March 16, 1966, his Pearl High School basketball team won Tennessee's first integrated state tournament—the same day Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky Wildcats lost to the all-black Texas Western Miners in an iconic NCAA title game.

The world seemed to be opening up at just the right time, and when Vanderbilt recruited him, Wallace courageously accepted the assignment to desegregate the SEC. His experiences on campus and in the hostile gymnasiums of the Deep South turned out to be nothing like he ever imagined.

On campus, he encountered the leading civil rights figures of the day, including Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Robert Kennedy—and he led Vanderbilt's small group of black students to a meeting with the university chancellor to push for better treatment.

On the basketball court, he experienced an Ole Miss boycott and the rabid hate of the Mississippi State fans in Starkville. Following his freshman year, the NCAA instituted "the Lew Alcindor rule," which deprived Wallace of his signature move, the slam dunk.

Despite this attempt to limit the influence of a rising tide of black stars, the final basket of Wallace's college career was a cathartic and defiant dunk, and the story Wallace told to the Vanderbilt Human Relations Committee and later The Tennessean was not the simple story of a triumphant trailblazer that many people wanted to hear. Yes, he had gone from hearing racial epithets when he appeared in his dormitory to being voted as the university's most popular student, but, at the risk of being labeled "ungrateful," he spoke truth to power in describing the daily slights and abuses he had overcome and what Martin Luther King had called "the agonizing loneliness of a pioneer."

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826520234
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 12/01/2014
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 700,544
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Andrew Maraniss is the New York Times–bestselling author of Strong Inside, the only sports-related book ever to win two prestigious civil rights awards—the Lillian Smith Book Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards Special Recognition Prize. Andrew is a contributor to ESPN's sports and race website, TheUndefeated.com, and helps run Vanderbilt University's Sports & Society Initiative. He also writes nonfiction for young readers.

Read an Excerpt

Strong Inside

Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South

By Andrew Maraniss

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2014 Andrew Maraniss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-2025-8



Bob Warren sat alone in the back of a taxi, bound for Massachusetts Avenue and the law school at American University, where he planned to deliver a message nearly forty years in the making.

As his cab sped through the streets of Washington, DC, far from his home in western Kentucky, Warren's mind raced back to the 1970s, before he became a preacher—when he was a professional basketball player—a crew-cut farm boy passing red, white, and blue basketballs to "Ice Man" Gervin in the freewheeling American Basketball Association, sharing locker rooms for nine seasons with Afro-coiffed men from places like Tennessee State, North Carolina A&T, and Jackson State University.

It was in those ABA days—in hotels, buses, cabs, restaurants, flights, and conversations with his many black teammates, in becoming familiar with their perspective on the world—that it dawned on Warren what hell one of his "brilliant and hardworking" teammates at Vanderbilt University, Perry Wallace, must have been going through in 1968, when Warren was a senior and Wallace, a sophomore, was the first and only African American ballplayer in the entire Southeastern Conference.

Warren's cab reached its destination, and the basketballer-turned-country-preacher made his way up to the fourth floor of the law school. Standing there to greet him was Professor Wallace; it was the first time these old teammates had seen each other in thirty-eight years.

"Forgive me, Perry," Warren said. "There is so much more I could have done."


Short 26th

Long before the day Bob Warren came to visit, there was the day Perry Wallace was elected captain of the Vanderbilt basketball team, the day when he was voted as the university's most popular student. There was the day he graduated from Columbia Law School, the day he delivered a lecture on global warming entirely in French, the day when he represented the Federated States of Micronesia before the United Nations. There was the day he watched his jersey hoisted to the rafters at Memorial Gym.

But before any of that, there were days when dorm room doors were slammed in his face, accompanied by cries of "Nigger on the floor!" There were days when grown men dressed in maroon, or orange, or red, white, and blue, threatened to castrate or hang him. There were days when he cried with frustration, days when blood flowed but no referees' whistles blew, days when so-called friends laughed at his pain.

But before any of this, before Perry Eugene Wallace Jr. even came into this world, there was Short 26th. His story begins in a little shotgun house on a dead-end street on the other side of the tracks.

His parents, Perry Wallace Sr. and Hattie Haynes Wallace, had come to Nashville from rural Rutherford County, Tennessee, not long after their marriage in 1928. Perry Sr. moved to Nashville first, to furnish and decorate the three-room house on Short 26th before his wife arrived. The Wallaces, both twenty-two years old, were eager to enjoy the benefits of city life. The South remained overwhelmingly rural, with only three out of ten people living in cities, but the migration had begun, and while many blacks headed hundreds of miles north to places like Chicago and Detroit, others, like the Wallaces, made the shorter journey to nearby southern cities.

Perry Sr. was just eleven years old when his mother died in childbirth, and his father, Alford Wallace, raised twelve children with a tough-love attitude, and the help of his sisters, on a farm near Murfreesboro, about thirty-five miles southeast of Nashville. It was a typical farm in many ways, full of fruit orchards, corn, cotton, hogs, and chickens; and there was a rock formation that seemed like a vast canyon to the kids, who would run through it barefoot. But the farm was unusual in one important way—Alford, a black man whose father had fought with the US Colored Troops in the Civil War, owned it. Perry Wallace Jr. wouldn't be the first pioneer in his family.

Hattie Haynes grew up close to Perry Sr. in the Blackman community near Murfreesboro. As children they played together, went to church together, and walked together across an old wood-and-rope bridge on the way to the one-room schoolhouse they attended through eighth grade. Hattie's teachers considered her the smartest student in the school, and they often let her do lessons on the chalkboard as an example to the others. Most of all she loved music: a traveling salesman had come through her parents' neighborhood selling affordable organs, and Hattie's father bought one for her mother. Hattie learned how to play, and from then on the Haynes house was full of music, her young fingers flying through a fast melody she called "Racing Horses."

Hattie was twenty years old when her mother died, and just two years later Perry Sr. came calling on her father to ask for Hattie's hand in marriage. They were married on April 1, 1928—their children would later joke about the April Fool's Day wedding—and soon they were on their way to Nashville, a bit apprehensive about the people and the pace of the city but excited about the opportunities. Two of Perry Sr.'s older brothers were already there; Joe and James Wallace helped the young couple get settled. Perry took jobs at a granary, then a chemical company, then with the railroad, then as a bricklayer, while Hattie rode the bus to clean homes and offices. Perry and Hattie were doing the best they could; these were the standard jobs available to blacks in Nashville at the time—and for decades to come. As late as 1940, nearly 80 percent of working black women in the city were employed as domestic servants or waitresses.

The city where Perry and Hattie began their lives together had been settled after the Revolution, emerging as an important frontier town in the mid-nineteenth century. As the young nation entered an era of Manifest Destiny, Nashville served as a key launching point in the western expansion. Up until the time of the Civil War, most Nashvillians considered their town more western than southern. Located roughly halfway between Chicago and New Orleans, about as close to parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana as to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, Nashville's crossroads location made the city more open to new people and new ideas than its Deep South peers.

It also made the city a major railroad hub for the occupying Union army during the Civil War, an especially important depot for General William T. Sherman's march on Atlanta. More than fifty thousand Federal troops occupied the city from 1862 to 1865 (more than three times the size of the city's 1860 population), what one historian called "perhaps the first, continued occupation of a city by any American army." While those troops cleared the city of thousands of trees—needed for firewood—they did leave some things behind: namely themselves. Dozens of Union soldiers married southern belles and remained in Nashville after the war, and one Federal fort was converted into a "college for Negroes" in 1866: Fisk University, named for Brigadier General Clinton B. Fisk.

Ten years later, the first medical school for blacks in the South, the Medical Department of Central Tennessee College of Nashville, was established. The school later became known as Meharry Medical College, and for generations afterward it produced most of the black doctors in the country. In 1912 another black college was founded in the city, Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School, which later became known as Tennessee A&I State and then simply Tennessee State.

Clustered in what locals call North Nashville but what is more accurately the near-west side of the city, these three institutions gave Nashville a larger concentration of highly educated, upwardly mobile blacks than most cities in the South. Still, most blacks in Nashville lived in deep poverty, many in a near shantytown just yards from the state capitol building downtown.

The center of black life was near those universities, and one road—Jefferson Street—was the place where everything happened. In a segregated society, the Jefferson Street area was where Black Power flourished long before the slogan was invented. Living in the "black cocoon," as Perry Wallace would describe it decades later, meant patronizing black-owned businesses, entering the front doors of black movie theaters, eating in black restaurants. Inside the cocoon, poor as it was, there were no whites-only lunch counters or back-alley entrances. Rather, there were institutions like Isom's Beauty Shop, Frank White's Cleaners, Green's Grocery, and the Ritz Theater. The leading black entertainers of the mid-twentieth century, from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole to Little Richard and Ella Fitzgerald, included Nashville on their itineraries, playing at the Silver Streak and the Del Morocco and staying at the Brown Hotel.

Perry Sr. and Hattie, the laborer and the cleaning lady, made a life in this cocoon. It was humble—this was Short 26th after all, just a stub of a road around the corner from Jefferson Street, not even the real 26th Avenue. Their house was small—living room, bedroom, kitchen, bedroom, porch—but soon enough it filled up with kids. First there was Annie, who became known simply as Sister, and then along came James, known as Brother, and Bessie, Jessie, and Ruby Jean.

While some neighbors succumbed to the temptations born of the marriage between a new urban existence and poverty—moonshine, gambling, and violence among them—Perry Sr. and Hattie lived a straight life, and they were determined, in the face of significant peer pressure, that their children would do the same. Of all the traditions and values in the Wallace home, the two most important were religion and education, and church life was especially important to Hattie. She was a regular at the Jefferson Street Church of Christ, a conservative congregation that forbade drinking, dancing, and instrumental music in the sanctuary.

The children went to Sunday School, read the Bible, and attended services with their mother. Mrs. Wallace brought the lessons of the church back to Short 26th, and the kids experienced what they would later call a "home-based" religion, a "vehicle for motivation and inspiration and healing when that was necessary," said Jessie. Much of that motivation and inspiration was directed at schooling. The Wallaces believed that a strong education was a necessary ingredient if their children were to succeed in a society that was not only becoming more urban and fast paced but also was engineered to restrict the opportunities for black people. The Wallace kids were smart, so smart that they encountered more than a little jealousy, more than a few strange looks from friends, neighbors, and other parents. Were those really French-, Spanish-, and German-language records you could hear Annie practicing with when you walked past the little shotgun house on Short 26th? What was that all about? That family is different.

On February 19, 1948, this straitlaced family of seven got quite a surprise: Perry Eugene Wallace Jr. was born at Meharry Hospital.

Can a birth really be that much of a surprise?

For some it was quite unexpected, given that the oldest Wallace child, Annie, was a sophomore in college and the youngest, Ruby Jean, had been born ten years earlier.

For Jessie, then thirteen, it was a real shock. She had had no idea that her mother, who wore billowing smocks around the house, was pregnant; when she heard her mother was in the hospital, she thought she must be dying. So traumatized by the thought, Jessie didn't ask anyone for days what was going on. Just then learning about menstruation in school, she thought about how this baby was made, and she was traumatized all over again. For Perry Sr. the birth of a healthy baby boy was no small pleasant surprise. Jessie's fear that her mother was dying was closer to the truth than she could have known. For Hattie, then forty-two years old, childbirth was life threatening. She was in the hospital for more than two weeks before Perry was born, and doctors discovered a tumor on her colon, which at the time they believed to be benign. Still, they took special precautions when Hattie gave birth to Perry. "Daddy was tickled to death," Jessie recalled, "because his wife had survived and he had gotten a little boy."

When mother and son were healthy enough to return home, Perry Sr. drove them back to Short 26th. As they rolled down Jefferson Street and neared the house, a train passed overhead on a railroad trestle. "Oh, son," Perry Sr. whispered to his infant boy, "before you could even get home you've gotten run over by a train." Jessie would later say that she believed her father's joke foretold "the trials and tribulations of life" that her baby brother would endure.

The girls gave little Perry baths, brushed his hair, and hauled him around everywhere, using the infant to draw the attention of boys at Hadley Park. The only time they let go of him was when Daddy came home from work. "Have to have my boy, have to have my boy," he would say, and then he wouldn't let his son out of sight all night, putting the "miracle baby" to sleep in a white bassinet at the foot of his and Hattie's bed.

Nearly as soon as one boy arrived in the house, the other left. Brother James, realizing that his parents would be struggling to put the girls through college while raising another child, enlisted in the air force as soon as he turned eighteen the November following Perry's birth. "He sacrificed for the family," Jessie recalled. "He was gone, and that was devastating."

As his sisters grew older and eventually all moved out of the house, Perry became even closer to his mother. He developed an uncommon sensitivity and was called a mama's boy; the love and values Hattie passed along to her son began to shape his behavior. In a world of chaos, much of it soon to be directed squarely at him, he would remain above the fray. Some observers would later remark on Perry's unflappable character when they saw him remain cool under pressure in places like Oxford, Mississippi, and Auburn, Alabama. They should have seen him in kindergarten.

Perry Wallace's education began in 1954, the same year as the Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision, at a school for black children named Jewel's Academy. Every day Perry the kindergartner walked from Short 26th down Howard Street over to the complex of chapels and schoolrooms at the academy, a private school run by the Church of God and Christ. Along the way, he passed by a factory and railroad tracks and, most exotic to him, a retirement home and its constant parade of elderly people with canes, walking by "real slow."

Run by a female bishop known as Chief Jewel, whom Perry considered a "big, strong, charismatic woman," the school included a mandatory, midday chapel session. Whether it was the imposing figure of Chief Jewel or the lessons on respect he had learned from his parents, Perry was the most even-tempered kid in kindergarten. This didn't necessarily sit well with his sister Jessie, who occasionally picked up her little brother from school.

Jessie arrived at Perry's classroom one day, and the teacher, Miss Davis, was nowhere in sight. With free reign, the kids were going berserk, running around screaming, bouncing off walls and windows—total pandemonium. All but one kid, that is. As his classmates went bonkers, there at his tiny desk sat Perry Wallace, not saying a word, waiting patiently for his sister.


Excerpted from Strong Inside by Andrew Maraniss. Copyright © 2014 Andrew Maraniss. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

1 Forgiveness 1

2 Short 26th 2

3 WoompShow 17

4 They Had the Wrong Guy 39

5 Harvard of the South 49

6 These Boys Never Faltered 68

7 Somewhere Like Xanadu 87

8 Reverse Migration 106

9 Growing Pains 112

10 Icicles in Raincoats 122

11 Articulate Messengers 131

12 A Hit or Miss Thing 138

13 Inferno 159

14 Subversion's Circuit Rider 167

15 Trouble in Paradise 188

16 Season of Loss 200

17 Ghosts 215

18 Memorial Magic 222

19 Deepest Sense of Dread 245

20 A Long, Hellish Trauma 252

21 Destiny of Dissent 264

22 Revolt 285

23 The Cruel Deception 298

24 Black Fists 306

25 Nevermore 321

26 Bachelor of Ugliness 328

27 Ticket Out of Town 352

28 Time and Space 366

29 Embrace 392

30 Rising 415

Acknowledgments 419

Notes 423

Bibliography 449

Index 451

Author Biography 468

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