Former Vanderbilt basketball player Perry Wallace, the first African-American player to compete in an SEC varsity basketball game, died on Friday at the age of 69.
His death comes just one day before the fiftieth anniversary of him breaking the SEC basketball color barrier.
“Vanderbilt, the sports world, and the entire country lost a civil rights icon today,” Vanderbilt chancellor Nicholas Zeppos said in a statement. “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 fiftieth anniversary of Perry’s groundbreaking achievement, his legacy will live on. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this time.”
Wallace, a Nashville native, went to high school at Pearl High School before deciding to attend Vanderbilt. He was one of two African-Americans on the 1967-68 team, alongside Godfrey Dillard.
On December 2, 1967, Wallace became the first SEC African-American athlete to compete in a varsity basketball game when he played against SMU. Days later, he would become the first African-American to play in an SEC game.
He was not only famous for breaking the SEC color barrier; he was a skilled player on the court. Wallace was named to the First Team All-SEC in his senior season and is second on Vanderbilt’s all-time rebounds list.
He was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, had his Number 25 retired in 2004 and was inducted into the inaugural class of the Vanderbilt athletics Hall of Fame in 2008.
“The information we received today informing us of the passing of our friend and fellow Commodore Perry Wallace has saddened us all,” athletic director David Williams said. “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.”
Wallace was the subject of Andrew Maraniss’ critically-acclaimed book “Strong Inside.” The book was selected as the Commons Reading for Vanderbilt first-years for the class of 2020, and the young readers edition was released in December of 2016. This year, Maraniss (‘92) became the Wond’ry’s inaugural Author & Innovator in Residence, helping to expand the Wond’ry’s goal of creating inclusive partnerships and expanding innovation beyond STEM disciplines.
A documentary about Wallace commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his historic game vs. SMU is set to premiere at Vanderbilt on Monday.