Perry Wallace, who faced virulent racism on his way to becoming the SEC’s first African American basketball player in 1967, has died. He was 69 and just days shy of the 50th anniversary of the night he first took the court for Vanderbilt University.
“The world lost one of its true gentlemen today,” Maraniss wrote on Twitter. “My friend and mentor has passed away. Rest In Peace, Perry Wallace. Your influence will live on in so many of us who admired you.”
Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos hailed Wallace’s “quiet strength and courage.”
“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.”
Wallace was born in Nashville in 1948 and later attended Pearl High School where he led the school’s all-black basketball team to an undefeated season and a state championship in Tennessee’s first ever integrated tournament. Pearl High’s state championship came on the same night as Texas Western’s historic victory as the first college basketball team with an all-black starting five to win a national championship. Wallace attended Vanderbilt on a scholarship and would go on to become a reluctant icon.
Wallace went on to get a law degree from Columbia University and work for the U.S. Justice Department and the National Urban League. It would be decades before he was welcomed back to Vanderbilt as a hero. In 2004, his No. 25 jersey was retired by the university.
Maraniss was a guest on the Scene‘s podcast in September, to discuss Wallace’s life and the parallels between his experience and that of black athletes protesting social injustice today.
Upon news of Wallace’s death Friday night, Mayor Megan Barry posted a tribute to him on Twitter.
“Perry Wallace competed on the court the same way he lived his life: with an extremely rare blend of courage, strength, skill and grace under fire,” Barry wrote. “We will miss this truly amazing man.”