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The inspirational true story of the first African American to play college basketball in the deeply segregated Southeastern Conferencea powerful and often overlooked moment in Black history.
Perry Wallace was born at an historic crossroads in U.S. history. He entered kindergarten the year that the Brown v. Board of Education decision led to integrated schools, allowing blacks and whites to learn side by side. A week after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, Wallace enrolled in high school and his sensational jumping, dunking, and rebounding abilities quickly earned him the attention of college basketball recruiters from top schools across the nation. In his senior year his Pearl High School basketball team won Tennessee's first racially-integrated state tournament.
The world seemed to be opening up at just the right time, and when Vanderbilt University recruited Wallace to play basketball, he courageously accepted the assignment to desegregate the Southeastern Conference. The hateful experiences he would endure on campus and in the hostile gymnasiums of the Deep South turned out to be the stuff of nightmares. Yet Wallace persisted, endured, and met this unthinkable challenge head on. This insightful biography digs deep beneath the surface to reveal a complicated, profound, and inspiring story of an athlete turned civil rights trailblazer.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Dear Readers: To accurately and vividly convey the racism that Perry Wallace and others encountered during certain scenes described in this book, the derogatory language they heard at the time is included here without edits. It would be a disservice to the reader and the heroes of this story to whitewash history by sanitizing these epithets.
A Dangerous Place
If you take a look at the Vanderbilt University basketball schedule for the 1966–67 season and search for the game dated February 27, you’ll see it was the day the Vanderbilt Commodores traveled to Starkville, Mississippi, to play the Mississippi State Bulldogs. But that day meant something much different to one member of the Vanderbilt basketball team.
For Perry Wallace, February 27, 1967, will always be remembered as the day he visited hell on earth.
From the very moment Vanderbilt’s flight from Nashville landed in Mississippi, a dangerous place for African Americans ever since the days of slavery, it was obvious the plane had delivered Wallace and his only other black teammate, Godfrey Dillard, straight into the heart of intolerance.
When the small propeller plane landed on a gravel runway surrounded by tall trees, Dillard thought, This place is backwoods. From the airport, a bus delivered the Commodores to their hotel, where a group of white students milled around, yelling at Wallace and Dillard and banging on the bus. As the Vanderbilt players walked into the Holiday Inn, all the white folks in the lobby turned around and stared at the two black players. They could not have felt more unwelcome.
Sleep did not come easily for Wallace and Dillard that night. As members of Vanderbilt’s freshman basketball team (in those days, freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity), they were about to become the first African American basketball players ever to play a Southeastern Conference game in the state of Mississippi.
Prior to the trip, Wallace told a Nashville sportswriter that he hadn’t thought much about what might lay ahead in Starkville. “Schoolwork and basketball practice keep a man’s mind on other things,” he said. “However, I certainly do wonder just what sort of reception we’ll get.”
In truth, Wallace had thought quite a bit about the trip, bracing himself for the hatred he suspected he and Dillard would encounter. “You knew you were going to get hit in some way,” he recalled years later. “It was just a question of how bad was it going to be.”
On game day, Wallace contemplated his surroundings. He was troubled by what he knew of Mississippi: less than three years had passed since three young civil rights workers had been murdered only about sixty miles from Starkville, and less than a year had passed since James Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, was shot in broad daylight, even while surrounded by FBI agents. But it wasn’t what he knew that concerned Wallace the most; it was the unknown.
“That’s the problem for pioneers,” he recalled. “You don’t know what could possibly happen to you. When you don’t know what’s going to happen, the sky is the limit.”
It is possible that the cramped visitors’ locker room in the bowels of the Mississippi State gym was always a stinking mess, but when Godfrey Dillard and Perry Wallace walked in, they took stock of the filthy surroundings and believed that what they saw and smelled was an attack directed squarely at them, a pair of unwanted guests: there were toilets overflowing, towels scattered everywhere across a dirty floor.
Game time approached, and the Commodores made their way from the locker room to the portal that led to the court, most of the players mentally preparing for a basketball game, Dillard and Wallace bracing themselves for the unknown, feeling like they were at the very apex of a roller coaster, their stomachs briefly suspended as if at zero gravity.
And then out of the tunnel and onto the court and, boom, the sensation of the rapid drop, the too-bright arena lights searing their eyes, the ringing of cowbells (a Mississippi State tradition), the piercing screams from the fans jammed close to the court, flashes of light and sound and eruptions of hate from every direction. Two young black kids exposed and surrounded in the heart of Mississippi, there for the taking.
Go home, niggers! We’re going to kill you, coons! We’re gonna lynch you! Forty years later, the scene stood out in teammate Bob Bundy’s mind; in his memory, as the Commodore freshmen warmed up under one basket, the whole bleachers were full of Mississippi State football players screaming at Perry and Godfrey. When Vanderbilt switched baskets, the football players followed them across the gym, continuing their threats.
Wallace’s blood ran cold; he had trouble gripping the basketball, his fingers gone stiff and numb. His mind raced to scenes from his childhood: the carload of punks who pointed a gun at him as he waited for the bus, the bullies who harassed him as he walked to school. He had seen racism bring out the worst in people.
But this was a whole new level of hate.
What had he gotten himself into?
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 A Dangerous Place 1
Chapter 2 Short 26th 5
Chapter 3 Freedom Song 17
Chapter 4 Pearl of the Community 25
Chapter 5 The Woomp Show 30
Chapter 6 Not Just Another Game 34
Chapter 7 They Had the Wrong Guy 42
Chapter 8 The Name of the Game 49
Chapter 9 Champions! 57
Chapter 10 The Promise 66
Chapter 11 The Surprise 72
Chapter 12 Dangerous Territory 78
Chapter 13 History Made Them Wrong 87
Chapter 14 Hit or Miss 93
Chapter 15 Crazy People 106
Chapter 16 Sudden Impact 114
Chapter 17 What About Justice? 126
Chapter 18 The Invisible Man 135
Chapter 19 Slammed Shut 141
Chapter 20 As Good as It Gets 146
Chapter 21 The Sudden Fall 157
Chapter 22 Nightmares 162
Chapter 23 Hate, Defeated 170
Chapter 24 A River of Tears 179
Chapter 25 Death of a Dream 184
Chapter 26 Truth to Power 189
Chapter 27 The Cruel Deception 196
Chapter 28 All Alone 202
Chapter 29 Nevermore 207
Chapter 30 Bachelor of Ugliness 215
Chapter 31 He Saved the Best for Last 221
Chapter 32 Ticket Out of Town 227
Author's Note 235